Sven Ulreich has gone from a shaky backup for Manuel Neuer, to a formidable one. In recognition of his outstanding performance this season, he should be regarded as Bayern’s man of the year.
Before the start of this season, I wrote an article on this very site grading Bayern’s depth. I gave the keeper position a C, thinking that Manuel Neuer would play almost the full season. I suggested that Bayern would need divine help if the World Cup winner missed significant time. Sometimes it is nice to be wrong.
Sven Ulreich has stepped up in response to Neuer’s injury better than anyone thought. Uli Hoeneß even went so far as to call the 29-year-old the club’s man of the year. Ulreich has been a tremendous asset in Bayern’s journey towards a sixth straight Bundesliga title.
Back in September, however, things were not as rosy for the former Stuttgart keeper. A nightmare performance in a 2:2 draw with Wolfsburg following Neuer’s injury had many Bayern fans feeling uneasy. Bayern was now asking a backup who played 10 games over the previous two seasons to fill the shoes of the world’s best keeper. Despite the shaky start, Ulreich never wilted. He has gone on to produce one of the best seasons of his career.
Number 26’s incredible spell as Bayern’s number one might be nearing an end in the coming weeks as Neuer inches closer to a return. But regardless of what happens with the lineup, Ulreich has certainly earned every compliment. The club owes the keeper a debt of gratitude. That gratitude manifested itself in a contract extension, ensuring Ulreich will deputize for Neuer until 2021.
A deserved extension
Following his shaky start against Wolfsburg, Ulreich went on to earn that contract extension. It’s been no secret that Bayern have had the occasional defensive slip, but Ulreich has remained consistently excellent. A 4:0 thrashing of SC Freiburg earlier this month could have gone a lot different had Ulreich not made a sensational foot save on Lucas Höler when the match was still scoreless. There are numerous examples of Ulreich saving Bayern’s defense from themselves.
Ulreich has played more matches this season than his previous two with Bayern. Being Neuer’s understudy is usually a boring job, and a lack of game time might be an excuse for some to let their talent slide. But Ulreich seems to be on top of his game and he is playing with confidence. Granted, not the same kind of sweeper keeper confidence usually seen in Bayern’s net but the stats still speak for themselves.
The 29-year-old has 14 clean sheets this season and counting. Ulreich has only conceded 29 goals in 34 matches this season, as a comparison Neuer gave up 25 goals in 40 matches last year. Ulreich is not anywhere near Neuer’s level but to act like his performance this year is far off would just be wrong. He is leading the record champions to another title and a treble is still on. Not bad for a backup. Ulreich even has an assist to his name. Neuer has never tallied an assist for Bayern.
The most impressive stat, however, might be Ulreich’s penalty record. The keeper has faced four penalties in the Bundesliga this season and has stopped all but one. His biggest save came against his former club, Stuttgart. With Bayern clinging to a 1:0 lead in the dying moments, Stuttgart was awarded a penalty. Bayern’s keeper stood his ground and made a fantastic stop to deliver the three points. In the cup, Ulreich led Bayern past RB Leipzig in a penalty shootout. He made a decisive save on Timo Werner to send Bayern through to the next round.
Bayern is still in the cup, they are still in the Champions League and they are nearing their sixth consecutive Bundesliga title. Ulreich is not the sole reason for any of this, but he’s playing a very important role. He could have folded under the pressure of taking over from the best keeper in the world, but he didn’t. He showed Jupp Heynckes, Uli Hoeneß and Bayern fans everywhere what he is capable of. Most importantly he has put in one hell of an audition to Joachim Löw.
What happens for the rest of the season largely depends on Neuer. But even if the world cup winner returns and reclaims his spot in the lineup nothing diminishes Ulreich’s remarkable contribution. He may lose the starting spot soon but he still helped one of the world’s biggest clubs to more silverware this year. No one can take that away from him.