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Germany's Manuel Neuer takes goalkeeping to spectacular levels

Germany's Manuel Neuer takes goalkeeping to spectacular levels
Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and defender Mats Hummels, right, walk from the pitch after losing a UEFA Euro 2016 Group D qualifying match toIreland on Oct. 8. (TOBIAS SCHWARZ / AFP/Getty Images)

Jamie Redknapp has earned the right to an opinion or two after nearly three decades as a player and pundit at the highest levels of European soccer.

Still, he caused a bit of a stir last spring when he took exception to those who have called Germany's Manuel Neuer the best goalkeeper in the world. And not because he considered it over-the-top hyperbole.

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For Redknapp, the praise didn't go far enough.

"Actually," he said, "he's the best goalkeeper ever. He has taken goalkeeping to a whole new level."

Neuer appreciates the compliment. But he won't contribute to that conversation.

"Normally, I'm not speaking so much about me," he said recently by phone from the German national team's training camp.

Too bad, because Neuer undoubtedly has a lot to say about how he redefined goalkeeping, changing it from a conservative, defensive position into an assertive, attacking one.

If goalkeepers were once like baseball catchers, a last line of defense in which size was nearly as important as skill, Neuer has turned them into NFL defensive backs — slick, sleek and agile, a blend of quickness, aggression and grace.

So he lets his play talk for him. And thankfully that speaks volumes.

Neuer was selected the best goalkeeper in last year's World Cup after shutting out Lionel Messi and Argentina for 120 minutes in the final, leading Germany to its first title in a generation. And he has been even better with Bayern Munich, giving up just over half a game per game in the last four seasons, helping the club to three consecutive German championships and a Champions League title.

In one three-month span early last season, he had 12 shutouts in 13 league games.

"For me it's more important to win a team award, like a World Cup," he said. "It was great to be the best team in the world. That was the most important [thing] of my career."

But then every World Cup champion has had a goalkeeper. What really sets Neuer apart isn't the position the plays but how he plays it, with a style that is changing the game.

"As a far of goalkeeping, it's impressive to watch because I don't think anyone can do it the way he does," U.S. national team goalie Tim Howard said. "Even though he's revolutionized the position, you would never teach a kid to play that way because it's literally impossible. Which makes it so special to watch him perform.

"I'm mesmerized by it. It's scary how well he performs in big games. When you talk about the best goalkeeper in the world, you don't get that easily."

Neuer said he grew up idolizing former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, who was as comfortable with a ball in his hands as on the ground.

"He always played in a little bit forward position as a goalkeeper. And he was playing with both feet," Neuer said. "I wanted to be like him."

So while he concentrated on becoming a goalie when he played with his youth club in the Ruhr region city of Gelsenkirchen, with his friends in the street he was a midfielder.

As a result, Neuer plays more like a sweeper than a goalkeeper, charging well off his line to break up an attack, as he did against Gonzalo Higuain on the edge of the penalty area in the World Cup final, or to start a counterattack.

He can chest the ball down and dribble it out like a forward. But like a top goalkeeper, he is also technically skilled and has an uncanny ability to read a match and know where to position himself.

"I'm the 11th field player," he said with a chuckle.

It's a high-risk, high-reward style he has perfected: in the last five seasons, he has given up fewer goals than any goalkeeper in the German league while completing a higher percentage of passes than Bayern Munich forward Thomas Mueller.

Andreas Koepke, an assistant on the Germany team, calls Neuer the best sweeper since the legendary Franz Beckenbauer, who invented the defensive position. And that rare combination is one reason why Neuer was one of three finalists for the most recent FIFA world player of the year, an honor only one goalkeeper, the Soviet Union's Lev Yashin, has won. (Cristiano Ronaldo won the trophy in January but Neuer was voted the world's best player in a poll of journalists taken by the respected French sports paper L'Equipe.)

And he's far from done. Although Yashin played only 25 more international games after winning the award in 1963, at 29 Neuer believes he's just coming into his prime.

"I'm at a very good goalkeeper age and I'm not tired," he said. "I'm still ambitious and I like to play football."

When he talks about goals, however, he again drops the "I" for the collective "we."

"Every season starts with zero," he said. "We have the chance to get the fourth [German league] championship in a row and it will be a record. We want every record.

"Next summer there is the European Cup. And of course we also want to be in the Champions League. We are hungry to get every title."

No matter how many trophies he wins, however, Neuer really isn't leading a revolution if no one else follows. So just as he once modeled his game after Schmeichel, Neuer says he has heard that many youngsters want to play like him.

"Some young players think that they want to be like Manuel Neuer," he said. "The goalkeeping level is not ending. But we don't know what it will be in the future."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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