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Hrubesch’s Choice: The State of German Goalkeeping

Toni Turek. Sepp Maier. Harald Schumacher. Andreas Köpke. Oliver Kahn. Jens Lehmann. Manuel Neuer. Germany have been a footballing nation characterised by their great goalkeepers ever since taking up football as a sport, with one of the game’s great goalkeepers’ tenures in the Germany goal generally replaced swiftly with another great.

Of the seven listed goalkeepers, only one – Jens Lehmann – hasn’t picked up an international winners medal of some variety. While this, of course, is hugely dependent too on the outfield players in front of the goalkeepers, it speaks volumes of the success of German goalkeeping. Virtually every great goalkeeper has received international recognition in some form, whether with the World Cup or European Championship winners’ medal.

But who’s next? Of course, at the age of 29, Manuel Neuer still has a while yet in the German number one jersey, with his previous great predecessors characterised by their longeivety; Maier playing internationally until 35, Köpke and Kahn until 36, and Jens Lehmann even until 38, but with the Under 21 European Championships taking place in the Czech Republic this summer, even greater scrutiny has come upon the young ranks of German goalkeepers, many of whom who have the talent and potential to stretch a glove into the pantheon of goalkeeping greatness. In quite a shocking turn of events – at least from an English perspective, given Roy Hodgson and Gareth Southgate’s rather measly pickings in goal – Horst Hrubesch’s Germany U21s have named three (four if you count the provisional squad) who are arguably stronger than those picked in the senior squad by Joachim Löw.

That’s right; Roman Weidenfeller and Ron-Robert Zieler are arguably (see: definitely) inferior goalkeepers to their understudies Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Bernd Leno and Timo Horn. Even Loris Karius, the unlucky individual not to make the final cut for Hrubesch’s side, has had a better season than the full international pair, becoming a true match-winner for Mainz over the course of the past year.

Germany’s first team isn’t exactly in crisis; having won the World Cup last year, they’re probably going to qualify for Euro 2016 with reasonable ease, and the absence of Manuel Neuer from Löw’s squad seems to be purely down to the ease of Germany’s fixtures in the coming weeks. However, the strength of Germany’s youth goalkeepers certainly bodes well for the future after Neuer and in the long term, with a number of relatively talented players becoming Bundesliga mainstays of recent years; it almost feels odd to imagine a Bundesliga without excellent goalkeepers such as Kevin Trapp, Rene Adler and Sven Ulreich playing for some of the league’s lesser – purely in terms of position – clubs.

So, what of the trio of young goalkeepers hoping to eventually carve out an international career for themselves? Who’s the one who’ll become the eighth name on the list at this article’s beginning? Where will their careers go? What have they achieved thus far?

Marc-Andre ter Stegen

Arguably the most established of the three at club level, Marc-Andre ter Stegen won the treble with Barcelona just last week (becoming only the second German goalkeeper to win a league/cup/continental treble after Manuel Neuer achieved it with Bayern in 2013), having already been a standout performer at the top stage with his hometown club Borussia Mönchengladbach. The 23 year-old has only played 21 times for Barcelona this season – his rival for the number one jersey Claudio Bravo starting in La Liga with ter Stegen trusted for cup and continental competitions – but with ten clean sheets and just sixteen goals conceded, he has continued an already impressive career when given the chance.

Ter Stegen’s playing style is perhaps more notable than stats – impressive as they are – however. Comfortable on the ball (despite a few notable mishaps against the United States and Braunschweig, which are no signifier of his quality as ball-player), and excellent as a sweeper keeper; arguably at a level close to, if not equivalent to, Manuel Neuer; ter Stegen was the clear replacement for Victor Valdes at Barcelona, and is probably the most like-for-like replacement for Neuer if and when the Bayern goalkeeper retires from international duty.

Besides that, though, keeping 45 clean sheets in what was, a few years ago, a relatively leaky Borussia Mönchengladbach defence over the course of 127 appearances for his boyhood club was an excellent achievement for a player who was a couple of months short of nineteen years of age when he made his debut in a 5-1 drubbing of local rivals 1.FC Köln. An introduction to a pressure cooker like a local derby obviously stood the youngster in good stead, as he managed to help the Foals scrape survival in a relegation playoff against Bochum, having kept a clean sheet against eventual title winner Dortmund. This continued throughout the rest of his spell with the club, with notable performances against Bayern in following seasons and progressively better finishes as a team as Borussia and ter Stegen developed into becoming established at the top end of the Bundesliga table.

That ter Stegen will have a great career is no wager; winning a treble and representing your boyhood club, and having done that by the age of 23, is an achievement in itself, but given current circumstances, it looks likely that the young Mönchengladbach-born goalkeeper could potentially end up the best goalkeeper of a generation.

Timo Horn

Horn, almost exactly a year younger than ter Stegen, has had a relatively similar career, but for a few key differences. Obviously, Horn hasn’t made the move to a giant yet, but perhaps on a deeper level, the Cologne born ‘keeper represents his local club of 1.FC Köln, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s arch-rivals. Making his debut in the 2. Bundesliga, after the Billy Goats were relegated in 2012, Horn has impressed at both of the top levels of German football since taking over the Köln number one jersey, being linked with a number of top clubs (including Spurs, Liverpool and, like any remotely decent German goalkeeper at present, Dortmund), and of course keeping 45 clean sheets, like ter Stegen did at Borussia, in just 106 games (73 of which were, admittedly, against second tier strikers).

Horn has perhaps been one of the brightest sparks of a positive first campaign back in the Bundesliga for Peter Stöger’s side, however despite the early promise he has shown, there is still much in his game to be improved.

While brilliant as a shot stopper and incredible at dealing with crosses, Horn isn’t as comfortable on the ball as either of his rivals for the Under 21 jersey, which could become a problem in later years at clubs less defensive than 1.FC Köln; where for Köln, he doesn’t have to deal with everything which goes in-behind the defensive – largely because Köln’s defence have been impenetrable at times this season – and in more possession-based systems, Horn may have to quickly learn to add this aspect to his game. A distribution success rate of just 61% in the past season may slightly prevent Horn from being mentioned in the same bracket as ter Stegen and Leno when considering a potential Neuer successor.

Bernd Leno

Bernd Leno is easily the most experienced of Hrubesch’s trio of goalkeepers in terms of sheer games played – an astonishing 175 for Bayer Leverkusen at the age of 23, and even ignoring the 57 appearances he made in the 3. Liga for the reserve team of his previous club, VfB Stuttgart. Having mixed it in the top half of the Bundesliga for his entire Leverkusen career, and with an already vast experience of playing against European outfits in both the Champions League and Europa League, Leno could be argued to be the best shout for Hrubesch’s side this summer. Like Horn, he’s not as comfortable on the ball as ter Stegen, but as one of the Bundesliga’s best shot-stoppers, Leno more than pays dividends for Leverkusen in other areas.

A great deal of Roger Schmidt’s original success at Bayer Leverkusen has to be put down to the way in which Leno marshalled his defence and, following the famous goal scored by Augsburg goalkeeper Marwin Hitz in February, Leno actually didn’t concede a domestic goal for another two months.

With 61 clean sheets and 207 goals conceded throughout his time at Leverkusen in all competitions, Leno has a seriously impressive record and could go on to become one of the great Bundesliga goalkeepers in the coming years. However, despite all his excellent performances for Leverkusen in recent years, Leno remains undecorated with major success, which is perhaps one major omission from his career to date. With a rival at arguably the world’s biggest and most successful club at present, Leno may wish to address this if he wishes to challenge to replace Neuer as Germany number one; whether that means magically turning Leverkusen into a trophy-winning club, something they distinctly aren’t at present, or moving onto pastures more successful.

Either way, though, one thing is clear. Horst Hrubesch and Joachim Löw, and by extension the rest of Germany, have never had it so good on the goalkeeping front. It’s genuinely difficult to separate this trio in meaningful terms given their similar records in Bundesliga action, and that certainly speaks volumes about the standard of both German goalkeeping coaching and youth coaching, as well as boding well for future national team coaches. If ter Stegen, Leno or Horn don’t join Turek, Maier, Schumacher, Köpke, Kahn, Lehmann or Neuer, somebody else will. That’s certain.