It's no great secret that Manuel Neuer ranks among the finest goalkeepers in world football.
After establishing himself as first choice at home-town club FC Schalke 04, the towering custodian soon became Germany's No1 and by the time the mighty FC Bayern München came calling in 2011 it was almost an inevitability.
Owing to Neuer's Royal Blue roots, certain sections of the Bayern supporters were anything but welcoming to begin with, but even the most partisan among them were soon won over by his impressive displays.
Though frustrated by a trio of runners-up finishes in his first season in Bavaria – Borussia Dortmund pipped them to a domestic double and, of course, Chelsea FC broke Bavarian hearts in the UEFA Champions League 'home' final – Neuer was already a pillar of the Bayern side that went one better on all three fronts last term, celebrating an unprecedented treble under departed coach Jupp Heynckes.
Neuer set a string of fresh records – fewest goals conceded in a Bundesliga campaign (18) perhaps the most telling – and even captained the team for the first time against FC BATE Borisov in the UEFA Champions League. His form has continued this term with nine clean sheets from 16 Bundesliga games, yet it is not Neuer's handiwork that has impressed me most.
As I write, as if on cue, Neuer has just come hurtling a good 35 metres out of his box to intercept a through ball in the final minute of Bayern's FIFA Club World Cup semi-final against Chinese outfit Guangzhou Evergrande FC.
Nine times out of ten, presented with the same situation, most keepers would have taken the safe bet and clouted the ball back upfield – and that's if they dared venture out so far in the first place. Prior to this campaign Neuer might well have done the same, but his dealing with the situation in this instance epitomises his development as a footballer – rather than as a goalkeeper – under Josep Guardiola this season.
Neuer, all 193cm of him, controls the ball expertly and, oozing composure, dribbles around the onrushing Guangzhou attacker and passes it short to left-back David Alaba. So Bayern build another fast-paced attack. That Guardiola likes to retain possession is well-known, yet most people, myself included, rarely associated that philosophy with the keeper.
This term, however, Neuer has been very much included in Bayern's passing game. At every one of their UEFA Champions League home matches, it has been striking how, when Bayern have the ball, Neuer holds a particularly high line, maintaining a consistent distance to his defenders and making himself available for a pass that does not necessarily force his side back into their penalty area.
A quick look at players' movements during games reveals that Neuer does tend to operate further up the pitch than his contemporaries. In all six of Bayern's Group D fixtures his average position was outside his own box, and the same applies on any Bundesliga heat maps.
His footwork has also improved dramatically. Compared with the same stage last season, Neuer has had more touches of the ball, playing fewer long passes. More significantly, his accuracy has almost doubled on last year's from around 35% to almost 80%. Though Guardiola is meticulously secretive when it comes to training sessions, clearly this is something he has been working on with his No1.
Of course, Neuer will clear long when absolutely necessary and his rasping throws are still an important factor in Bayern's ability to counter, but gone are the days of his harried clearances – his disastrous error against VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach on matchday 18 of the 2011/12 campaign when Marco Reus pounced on a sloppy kick to lob him from 40 metres, springs to mind. These days Neuer is truly a part of Bayern's tactical fusion of tiki-taka and Teutonic efficiency.
All summer people were asking the question: how can Guardiola enhance this all-conquering Bayern team? Neuer's development as a footballer this season is, for me, just one example.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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