Who will win the battle of the goalkeepers?
When England come up against Germany on Tuesday, they will have to find a way past one of the most iconic goalkeepers in the game.
A World Cup winner with Die Mannschaft and a serial champion with Bayern Munich, the sight of Manuel Neuer between the sticks is enough to make most strikers doubt themselves.
At the other end of the pitch, England will have Jordan Pickford as their last line of defence. One of Gareth Southgate’s trusted lieutenants, he will be tasked with matching – or surpassing – Neuer’s performance.
But how do the two goalkeepers compare? And who is most likely to triumph at Wembley?
Big game experience
Quietly, Pickford has established himself as one of England’s most experienced players, and a player with a sizeable amount of know-how on the biggest stages.
Even when his club form for Everton has been patchy, Pickford has rarely let his country down, a point he underlined with the superb stop that denied Scotland’s Stephen O’Donnell a goal in the group-stage game at Wembley.
“He’s got the most experience and he has never let England down,” says Peter Shilton, England’s record appearance holder. “International football is different. The pressure on a goalkeeper is intense because every mistake is analysed and criticised and can cost you a major tournament. You have to have that character and self-belief.”
After star performances in the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Nations League, during which Pickford helped England win two penalty shoot-outs, it is a trend that Gary Neville also identified in an old team-mate. “For me, he is a far better goalkeeper at the international level than he is at Premier League level – he reminds me of Fabien Barthez. For France he was fantastic.”
Few goalkeepers in history have more experience of major matches. More than 100 caps for Germany, a World Cup winner and a victor in every major club competition at Bayern Munich, including two Champions League triumphs, Neuer was named world goalkeeper of the decade for 2011-2020. He has set the standard for young players in his position.
It has all contributed to an aura that David Coles, the former West Ham and England under-18 goalkeeping coach, noticed when he first set eyes on Neuer, then aged 18, in 2004 at an under-21 match against Scotland at Livingstone.
“He was already a beast – making saves, kicking the ball a country mile, dealing with crosses and communicating like a foghorn,” said Coles, who was working for Southampton at the time.
“But he was also calm and level-headed. I went back to the club and said ‘we’ve got to get this kid’ but you weren’t getting him for love nor money. You could already see that he was a special talent.”
Pickford’s stats may not stack up well against Neuer, but he does offer something distinct with the ball at his feet. “He sees the big picture straight away and can ping it anywhere with that left foot,” says Coles. “He suits England’s DNA.”
Never was that more evident than when he was virtually an attacker in helping to create two goals in England’s 3-2 Nations League win against Spain three years ago.
“There is more emphasis now on keeping the ball, retaining the ball and working the overloads,” says Coles.
“For many managers, the goalkeeper is the 11th player and you have to be as good with your feet as your hands.”
Neuer was at the forefront of a revolution in the goalkeeping position, especially under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, with his high positioning and willingness to alleviate pressure on the defence by leaving his penalty area to intercept long balls over the top.
Andreas Kopke, the German goalkeeper coach, said that he had “never seen a better sweeper, apart from maybe Franz Beckenbauer” while Guardiola actually thought that Neuer was good enough on the ball to play in midfield. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the Bayern chief executive, says that Guardiola was entirely serious about the idea but that there was concern it would be considered arrogant.
“I am convinced that Manu would have done well in midfield, too,” says Rummenigge.
Kasper Schmeichel says that this approach is now “what everyone else is kind of striving for” although it clearly does also bring some risk. That danger is also elevated for Germany, where Neuer has been playing behind an entirely different back line to Bayern.
Pickford v Neuer
Shot stopping and crosses
Coles, though, can still vividly recall Pickford’s outstanding raw shot-stopping ability when he was a young goalkeeper on loan at Bradford and Preston.
“It was at Bristol City, he was about 20 and you always knew he was going to be special,” says Coles. “He would make big saves at the right times and was brave on crosses for his size. I remember him missing one, us scoring, but how he still kept coming. He has an aura that [he] doesn’t take many prisoners.”
That record has held up at the Euros, where Pickford has yet to concede a goal and has made superb saves in the games against Scotland and the Czech Republic. That said, one area for improvement that has been previously highlighted by goalkeeping specialists has been Pickford’s shot-stopping from longer range.
Martyn Margetson, the England goalkeeper coach, noticed how his hands can sometimes hang in different positions and has been working on making them more symmetrical. There is also a sense that they can start off too low and then prompt an unnecessary second movement while the ball is flying through the air.
“If you keep yourself more upright you give yourself more time to react,” says Rob Green, the former West Ham and England goalkeeper.
Neuer’s record at the Euros has been patchy – he has conceded five of the eight attempts he has faced, a curio given his reputation was forged on being particularly difficult to beat in one-on-one situations. He was certainly partly to blame for Hungary’s second last Wednesday.
Yet shot stopping could also relate to penalties and, by this measure, Neuer has a slight edge, saving 32 per cent of the penalties in his career (Pickford’s is closer to 30 per cent).
Coles says that it is now standard practice for the goalkeeper to be fully briefed on every possible penalty-taking opponent. The penalty-shoot-out scenario will also have been practised to the nth degree.
“You go through all the set plays, penalties and penalty takers extensively,” he says.
Pickford had started 120 consecutive Premier League games for Everton up until November last year when Carlo Ancelotti decided that he needed a rest. It had followed his late challenge on Virgil van Dijk and a general sense that he had become rash and error-prone.
It was a crossroads moment, especially after further time out of the team with an abdominal injury. Pickford, though, would emerge stronger over the second half of the season, a development that he partly credits to his work with a sports psychologist.
“It was something I needed,” he says. “I feel calmer, I feel in the moment and I feel great. There are techniques to help you be calmer and that is something I have been working on.”
During this current tournament, Pickford has also been among those regularly benefiting from the ‘hotpod yoga’ sessions which have been part of the England players’ relaxation and recovery between games.
Germany’s dreadful 2018 World Cup performance placed considerable pressure on a number of the team’s old guard, including Neuer, whose levels had clearly dipped below his 2014 peak in Brazil.
Holland then beat Germany 4-2 the following year in a Euro 2020 qualifier and there was a clamour for Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen to be given his chance. Joachim Loew kept faith in Neuer, a decision that Ter Stegen called a “heavy blow”.
This prompted former Bayern president Uli Hoeness to make an extraordinary intervention, threatening to withdraw players from the national team if Neuer was dropped. Ter Stegen is currently injured, meaning Neuer has considerably less pressure on his place in the form of Bernd Leno and Kevin Trapp.
He has also come into the tournament off the back of a highly successful period with Bayern, which has included further Bundesliga titles and another Champions League triumph. His mentality is not in question.