With Germany getting ready to depart for Brazil to contest the 2014 World Cup, Marc-André ter Stegen was preparing to watch the tournament from his new home of Barcelona. Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer – undisputed best goalkeeper in the world – Borussia Dortmund’s Roman Weidenfeller and Hannover’s Ron-Robert Zieler had been selected as Die Mannschaft’s three goalkeepers, with the 22-year-old being forced to watch his nation from the sidelines.
Jump ahead four years to the World Cup in Russia and ter Stegen had earned himself a spot in Joachim Löw’s national squad, but found himself watching as Manuel Neuer’s understudy as Germany crashed out of the tournament in miserable fashion. In 2014, even if ter Stegen had made the final squad, there would have been no replacing Neuer in the side as he was the best goalkeeper on the planet.
In Russia, however, there was a strong feeling that Neuer’s injury problems – having barely recovered from a fractured foot in time for the tournament – had brought about a descent from his godly pedestal and that the time had come for ter Stegen to take over the national gloves. Neuer’s decline has meant that the greatest goalkeeper has merely become one of the greatest goalkeepers, but ter Stegen’s regular heroics behind a suspect Barcelona defensive line have increased the pressure upon Neuer’s shoulders.
In the same summer in which ter Stegen missed out on Germany’s successful World Cup campaign, he secured himself a €12 million switch from his boyhood club Borussia Mönchengladbach to European powerhouse Barcelona. With long-time Barca goalkeepers Víctor Valdés and Jose Manuel Pinto both leaving in that summer, the Catalan giants opted to bring ter Stegen and Chilean Claudio Bravo in as their replacements, creating an awkward system of goalkeeper rotation.
For two seasons, Luis Enrique had two top-quality goalkeepers battling it out for the number one spot, and so opted to play Bravo in league matches and ter Stegen in all cup competitions. As with any footballer, not playing regularly proved an annoyance for both, with ter Stegen coming close to leaving the Nou Camp in the summer of 2016. In an interview with Club Del Deportista, ter Stegen is quoted as looking for a solution to the problem that he found himself in, with the German seeking out a potential move away from the club. Ultimately, the Catalan club decided to sell Bravo to Manchester City and put their full faith into ter Stegen, a decision that has proven to be the right one with Bravo’s struggles in Manchester and the German excelling for Barca.
Even with ter Stegen’ starring performances for Barca, there has been an almost criminal underappreciation for his ability, until perhaps this current season. When there is talk about the greatest goalkeepers in the world, the usual suspects are mentioned; Neuer, David De Gea, Jan Oblak, Thibaut Courtois and Gianluigi Buffon are the more common names, with Brazilian’s Alisson and Ederson and Chelsea’ world record goalkeeper Kepa being added to the list of elite more recently. Ter Stegen’s name always appears on this list, but very rarely does he get the full credit he deserves.
In a cruel twist of irony, the reason for ter Stegen’s underappreciation comes from his quality across the many facets of the goalkeeping position. Oblak is regarded as a clean sheet expert, De Gea the best shot-stopper, and a mix of Neuer, Alisson and Ederson as the best sweeper keepers, whereas ter Stegen is confident across all aspects of his game. According to WhoScored.com, ter Stegen earned a rating of 6.90 during the 2017/18 season, with only Oblak of the oft-mentioned elite goalkeepers receiving a higher rating. The German kept 19 clean sheets – the second best in Europe’s top five leagues – and was the fourth most accurate goalkeeper with short passes with 17.7 per 90 minutes, only behind Ederson (18.2), Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Yann Sommer (19) and Real Sociedad’s Gerónimo Rulli (20.4).
These statistics are undoubtedly a major part of the reason that many Germans believed ter Stegen should become number one for his country ahead of the World Cup, especially as Neuer was injured for the majority of the season. It is impossible to say what might have been had ter Stegen been in goal, but perhaps there would not have been an acrimonious group stage exit and maybe Löw’s job security would not be in the precarious position it finds itself presently. In his loyalty to his long-time goalkeeper, Löw has potentially sealed his own fate.
For Löw, or whoever potentially replaces him as Germany manager, the time has seemingly come to start ter Stegen ahead of Neuer. The performances of ter Stegen this season have been nothing short of remarkable and even if Neuer was performing to the high standards of old, it would be a brave manager to not pick the Barcelona goalkeeper for matches.
With Real Madrid struggling for form in La Liga, there is a perfect opportunity for Barcelona to race into an early lead and ter Stegen has certainly played his part. In Barcelona’s match-up against Sevilla, the German outlined why he is deserving of the title of world’s best goalkeeper, with two outstanding double saves.
The first, with the score at 2-0 to Barcelona, saw ter Stegen fly to his right to expertly claw out an Andre Silva header and then scramble back to his feet to get a block on Franco Vasquez’s follow-up. It is a training exercise that often appears on social media channels, but seeing it action during a competitive match was a sight to behold. Later in the game, with Sevilla threatening to bring the game close at 3-2, ter Stegen produced another world-class double save, diving to his left to tip Sarabia’s effort away before once again reacting quicker than any of his defenders to block Ben Yedder’s strike. The final score was 4-2, meaning those two double saves had saved Barcelona two precious points.
Perhaps ter Stegen will never receive the true credit he deserves due to the all-round brilliance of his game, but there can be no doubt of his quality. The German has quietly become one of the true greats of the modern game, and at just 26-years-old, he may well become one of the greatest to ever pull on the gloves, if not the greatest.
Part of our Number Ones series