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Germany's goalkeeper generation after Manuel Neuer and co.

March 4, 2023

Germany has long been considered a "nation of goalkeepers," but the number of regular German keepers in the Bundesliga has reduced year after year.

Manuel Neuer and Marc-Andre ter Stegen
What does life look like for Germany after Manuel Neuer and Marc-Andre ter Stegen?Image: Weber/Eibner-Pressefoto/picture alliance

At the end of the 2012-13 season, 83% of the first-choice goalkeepers in the Bundesliga were German. In other words: 10 years ago, a German keeper stood between the posts of 15 of 18 Bundesliga teams.

Things have changed dramatically since then. There are only seven Bundesliga clubs with a German keeper at the moment. The youngest is Cologne's Marvin Schwäbe, and even he is 27 years old. Young German keepers who get regular Bundesliga minutes are a rarity.

"If you look at the top talents of the last decade, players like Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Thibaut Courtois and Jan Oblak, and looking a bit further back, also Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas, these keepers had already played an average of over 200 first-team games by the age of 23," Marc Ziegler, a former Bundesliga keeper at Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund, told DW. "Our young keepers are nowhere near that."

International experience gives an edge

Since 2015, Ziegler has been head of goalkeeping at the German football association (DFB), and his work involves developing young male and female keepers from U15s up.

Man at work with his arm around a blow-up doll of a goalkeeper wearing a BARRET shirt
As goalkeeping coach, Ziegler develops the next generation of goalkeepers in GermanyImage: Eibner Europa/IMAGO

"Pressure in competition has increased, as has the value of the league," Ziegler said about why fewer German and hardly any young goalkeepers regardless of country play in the Bundesliga.

"The Bundesliga is one of the top three leagues in the world, so teams are looking for competitive goalkeepers. Keepers who come from abroad bring a certain amount of experience. Most of them have already played internationally, both for their countries and in European competitions."

Goalkeeping DNA required

Observers say this development could leave the men's national team short of quality in between the posts in the years ahead.

"I'm deeply concerned," former Germany goalkeeping coach Andreas Köpke recently told Sport1 when asked about the generation after Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Kevin Trapp. The DFB is aware of this and has improved the coaching of goalkeepers in recent years.

In cooperation with the goalkeeping coaches at the Bundesliga clubs, Ziegler and his team have developed a "goalkeeper DNA" that outlines 10 traits that modern keepers have to have in order to be able to compete at the top level.

This is about much more than stopping shots. Being able to play in space so as to catch crosses and chase down balls is key, as is constantly adapting positional play, organize the team from goal and starting attacks themselves. Alongside the football requirements are also some mental traits.

The profile of a modern exceptional goalkeeper is complex, largely because the current crop of Germany keepers have raised the bar.

"The goalkeeping generation around Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Bernd Leno generated added value for the coaches because they can play football," Ziegler said.

These abilities have now become standard.

"The current generation has it tough because they don't bring a similar added value," Ziegler said. On the contrary, the older keepers know this routine already. "That's why a head coach will likely start a more experienced keeper, so long as he's not out of form. The young generation has to be patient, until age forces change," said Ziegler.

Two models of career planning

Given that regular playing time at the top level in full stadiums is absolutely required in order to become an exceptional goalkeeper, career planning is particularly important for goalkeepers.

"There are two choices: the approach of getting minutes is for keepers who are already talented and confident enough that they believe they can do anything. These are the ones who need playing time," football agent Stefan Backs told DW.

Backs' current clients include Alexander Nübel, the Bayern keeper currently on loan at Monaco, and Schalke's long-standing keeper, Ralf Fährmann. The other choice, according to Backs, is for keepers who need time to grow accustomed to a certain level.

"For those keepers it often makes sense for them to move to a bigger club and be second choice in order to learn skills and traits that might be missing," Backs said.

Noah Atubolu in goal for Freiburg
Will Noah Atubolu be Germany's next goalkeeper?Image: Jan Huebner/IMAGO

Tolerance for form dips and mistakes

"Of course I'm happy to see young German keepers get a chance. We try to make clubs aware that we have talented keepers who can perform at this level," said Ziegler, who knows from personal experience what it is to be thrown in at the deep end as a young keeper.

In 1995, head coach Rolf Fringer made the 19-year-old the No. 1 at Stuttgart, even though the experienced and former Germany keeper Eike Immel was on the squad.

"When you put a young goalkeeper in goal, you have to allow for a certain dip in his performances, offer him support and accept his mistakes," Ziegler said.

The keepers that have currently caught Ziegler and his team's attention are Noah Atubolu and Jonas Urbig.

Atubolu is currently No. 1 for Germany's U21s, regularly trains with Freiburg's first team and plays for the second team in the third division. He has even already played in the German Cup and the Europa League. The 19-year-old Ubrig left Cologne for second-division Regensburg on a loan move in order to play more games.

Ziegler said dropping down a division was not a bad idea, although the next step then must follow.

"If playing for Germany is the end goal, then international playing time is of course a requirement," Ziegler said. "That is something we still have to work on."

This article was originally written in German.