The 11th Man

There is much talk in football about the 12th man. Whether that is the fans singing their hearts out on the Kop, the referee who appears to be giving everything to the opposition, or a rogue beach ball that has bounced on to the pitch and has yet to be removed. It is said, this 12th man gives you the advantage, but it is a strange term to use when the teams are not even utilising the 11 that they have on the pitch.

It is no secret that I am a big fan of attacking football. Tactical innovations, potential new signings and experimental formations are issues that I look at in great detail, and with a keen eye. My own footballing manifesto would feature Marcelo Bielsa heavily, it would draw parallels between football and chess, and it would promote the seemingly ludicrous 3-3-1-3 system.

Understandably not everyone is inclined to agree with my thinking. The pundits at the BBC and ITV would certainly have a thing or two to say about my proposals. When Germany faced Algeria earlier in the World Cup, many were quick to condemn the Germans high defensive line and over reliance on Manuel Neuer.

When Germany faced France in the next round, again the pundits were critical. Alan Shearer seemed especially shocked and appalled by the Germans high line, voicing his dismay that one ball over the top was all that was needed for France to create a goal scoring opportunity. France did not exploit this apparent weakness, the Germans progressed, and they are now my favourites to win the tournament outright.

Germany seem to have taken over Spain’s mantle. Their side is youthful and energetic, they often play with no out-and-out striker, and they have a wealth of technically gifted players at their disposal. The Spanish model has not just been replicated though, it has been improved.

The improvement has come through using the 11th man. The man that is almost always overlooked as a footballer, the one position on the pitch where, as a kid, you did not need any skill or ability, you simply needed to be big. This 11th man is, of course, the goalkeeper.

On a football pitch you are looking to gain any advantage you can. Like the opposition, you only have access to 11 players, and so you must use these 11 players as efficiently as possible. If one of these players has no role in the game other than baby-sitting the net, then you are already at a disadvantage.

Football is a lot like chess. You have the same number of pieces as your opponent, you face off on the same playing surface, and you both have the same aim. The great chess players know that in order to win they need to get the most out of each of their pieces. This gives rise to the maxim: “The King is a fighting piece – use it!”

With the King being the weakest, and most important, piece on the board it would seem logical to ignore the maxim and do nothing but protect him at all times. But if you are to do that, and your opponent uses their King as an attacking piece, essentially your opponent has one more piece than you. In tight games, against similar opposition, this smallest of advantages can be the difference between victory and defeat.

If we are to transfer this into footballing terms it would translate as “The goalkeeper is a footballer – use him”. By using your goalkeeper, not just to protect your own goals, but to actually participate in defending, building attacks and possession football, you are utilising your 11th man. If your opposition is not doing this, you immediately have a man advantage.

There are teams that do utilise the 11th man, in fact almost every team does, but you only see it for a very brief period of time. When a team is desperately hunting for a goal, and the clock is ticking down to full time you see the goalkeeper more involved in the game. He leaves the safety of his six yard box and lingers on the edge of his area, he sweeps behind his defenders who are camped on the halfway line, and he plays long, raking, diagonal balls to those further upfield.

Only here the goalkeeper plays a part other than bystander. But if he is able to play that role at that point in the match, why is he not able to earlier?

The conservative traditionalists within football see the reliance on a sweeper-keeper as a sign of weakness. The high defensive line and the involvement of the goalkeeper appears to be the last move of a desperate manager, with nothing left to throw at the opposition. Perhaps because this tactic is only used in the dying moments of matches, that is why it has such a reputation.

If anything though, the use of the goalkeeper in the sweeper-keeper role is not desperation, and is not a weakness. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Utilising the 11th man is tactical genius, it is an innovation that may be seen as questionable currently, but it is something which is going to become more and more popular in the coming years.

The heat map of Neuer, taken from the Algeria – Germany game, shows the extent to which he was involved. Covering almost the entire final third of the pitch, he was anything but a bystander.

Manuel Neuer is not only a world class goalkeeper, but he is a footballer as well. In the sweeper keeper role, as this video suggests, he is more than just a keeper. His defensive skills, covering any through balls, and sweeping behind his back line, allow the defenders to push up field. This in turn restricts the space the opposition have in the middle of the park, and forces the football to be played in their half of the pitch.

The tactic is very deliberate, and would not work for the majority of teams, but in Neuer Germany, and Bayern Munich, have a goalkeeper to revolutionise what it means to play between the sticks. Joachim Löw, the Germany manager, stated that Neuer could “play in midfield” and Toni Kroos, who occupies one of those positions, reiterates what this article is arguing, calling him the team’s “11th outfield player.”

Credit should not only be given Neuer himself, but also to the most progressive and revolutionary managers in the game today, arguably the best manager in the world, Pep Guardiola.

Six months ago Andy James wrote about the evolution of Neuer, and how Guardiola was turning him into a footballer, rather than a goalkeeper. I bet even James is surprised at how far, and how fast, the evolution has occurred.

This is why the tactic is both so dangerous, and so brilliant. Guardiola has a philosophy, and every player, every position, and every move has to fit into that philosophy, and compliment it as a whole. It is a grand design, with each individual cog aiding the movement and progression of the other pieces around it. You could not remove this sweeper-keeper tactic and simply install it at say Chelsea, for example, because it would not work. The team needs to be geared towards an aim, and each position allows the team to function.

After inheriting a treble winning team it was hard to imagine what Guardiola could possibly do. His last club, Barcelona, revolutionised club football, and so in both instances, he was facing a very tough act to follow. Guardiola though, is not content with stability, and continuity. As a manager he looks to push the boundaries, he looks to create, radicalise and perfect. Morphing Lahm into a defensive midfielder, and having Neuer play as a sweeper-keeper are just two example of how he is constantly looking to push the boundaries, and develop new tactics.

What we saw against Algeria was the future of goalkeeping. A player who’s main task is to keep a clean sheet, must also now hold other responsibilities. The future of football is a future where each position has a variety of functions. There will be no defensive midfielders present purely to break up attacks, there will be no strikers purely to score goals, and there will be no goalkeepers purely to stop the opposition scoring. Neuer may be the first modern complete sweeper-keeper, but he shall not be the last.

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This article was originally published on These Football Times on 11th July

4 thoughts on “The 11th Man

  1. Arrrrrghhhhh! Whoever decided to give Guardiola the credit for anything the German team currently does deserves to be tied down and watch first all the games of the Germany team since 2006, from the main team as well as the U-21 team, and then watch Manuel Neuer during his time at Schalke (btw the best club in Germany when it comes to training goalies).

    The tactic Neuer currently uses is nothing new. He has reinterpreted the position of the goalie for years. He already did so at Schalke (and believe me, not always to the joy of the fans…I remember watching a game, everyone complaining about him. I took a good look, and then I made a bet: that one day Manuel Neuer would be playing for the national team, becoming the best goalie Germany ever had). The only reason people start to pay attention now is because he has become so good at it.

    One doesn’t give him enough justice if you take the credit away from him. He trained long passes when nobody though that the goalie should be able to do more than not kick the ball in the outlet. He always did more than other goalies do, and convinced the trainers to follow his interpretation…not the other way around.

    1. I am not giving Guardiola credit for the Germany team, I am though, correctly praising him for the role he has played in the development of Neuer.

      Guardiola did not create Neuer, or tell him how to play, but he has encouraged him. In the article I mention an article by Andy James. http://www.uefa.com/uefachampionsleague/news/blogs/blog=ucl_blog_germany/postid=2039403.html
      In this he says: “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.”

      Neuer was a sweeper-keeper with all the necessary skills a Schalke, and before Guardiola arrived at Bayern, but since moving to Bayern, and since Guardiola has been appointed, he has improved tremendously.

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