After warming Bayern Munich’s bench for two seasons, an injury to Manuel Neuer has given Sven Ulreich the biggest break of his career. Will he take it with both hands? The signs aren’t good…
Being the second choice goalkeeper for any team can be a frustrating job.
You’ve got to stay physically and mentally prepared for action without knowing when, if ever, your chance to stake a claim for the number one shirt will come.
That must have felt futile at times for Sven Ulreich, Bayern Munich’s back-up to Manuel Neuer – ‘the Wall’ has been named world’s best goalkeeper for the forth consecutive year and was nominated for the title again this week.
It’s hardly surprising then that Ulreich was considering a move away from Bavaria earlier this year.
“If the opportunity arose to play at another club, I would seriously consider it,” he told German newspaper Bild in February.
“I’m an ambitious player. Of course it’s not my aim to sit on the bench as a No. 2 for the rest of my career.”
Arsenal were among the clubs rumoured to be interested in signing the 6 ft 4 German this summer, but Ulreich recommitted himself to the club and his patience has paid off – albeit under unfortunate circumstances.
Bayern revealed captain Neuer had suffered a foot injury in training on Monday and later confirmed that he has broken a metatarsal and will be out until 2018.
Ulreich was careful not to sound cynical when asked about the chance this presents him, saying: “I am ready to show again what I can do. It’s really sad news for us that Neuer is injured. I wish him quick recovery.”
He says “again” because he made five league appearances at the end of last season as a result of two foot injuries to Neuer.
Bayern won three of the five games in which he was between the sticks by a comfortable margin.
However the club’s 20-match unbeaten run was ended in Ulreich’s second start – a 1-0 loss to Hoffenheim in which he failed to get a strong enough hand on the 25-yard winner.
Andrej Kramarić’s volley on the turn was well hit but central and should have been saved.
“This thing ends 0-0 if Manuel Neuer is in the nets” the commentator from Fox Sports suggests.
Memories of that moment and the fact Ulreich doesn’t play in the same sweeper-keeper style of Neuer – instead preferring to rely on his reflexes like the legends of German goalkeeping – have made many Bayern fans nervous about the next three months.
Ulreich’s passing stats provide further evidence he won’t be able fit easily into Neuer’s role: he completed just 45% in the German Super Cup and only reached 72% in his midweek start against Schalke.
Despite that, the 29-year-old ended the Super Cup as hero after saving two Dortmund penalties in the shoot-out.
Pep Guardiola must have seen something in Ulreich when he signed him from Stuttgart in the summer of 2015 to replace Pepe Reina.
But whatever it was isn’t obvious from Ulreich’s statistics in his final season with Stuttgart in 2014/15, when the club avoided a relegation play-off by a single point.
German football magazine Kicker rated him as the third worst goalkeeper in the Bundesliga that season.
It’s hardly surprising then to find his name on a list of Guardiola’s worst signings.
Ulreich’s critics will feel vindicated after his howler against Wolfsburg on Friday night.
He seemed to forget all technique as he stuck out one hand without much conviction to deal with the dipping but straight free-kick from 25 yards.
He explained afterwards that he was preparing to tip the shot over the bar and was beaten by the dip.
“It was a clear goalkeeper mistake,” he admitted. “I’m sorry for the lads and the team.”
It’s about the worst preparation possible for a Champion’s League meeting with Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Edison Cavani, even if PSG’s forwards are at war with each other.
On the other hand, the clash in Paris on Wednesday provides Ulreich with a platform to immediately bounce back and make a statement about his abilities.
And he has proved his detractors wrong in the past.
At 19, Ulreich was promoted to Stuttgart’s first team, but a run of 11 games ended when he was publicly blamed for a 3-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen by his manager Armin Veh.
He was sent back to play for Stuttgart’s reserves and stayed their for the next two years.
The retirement of Jens Lehmann gave Ulreich a second chance and he took it, holding down the number one shirt in Swabia for five seasons.
In his second full season in the Bundesliga – 2011/12 – he was rated the league’s third best goalkeeper.
During 2012, he made the most saves of any goalkeepers in the league.
And in 2013, he was being talked about as a dark horse for Germany’s 2014 World Cup squad after eye-catching performances like this match-winning clean sheet against Herta Berlin.
Ulreich should call on that journey as he seeks to prove his capabilities all over again from Wednesday.
Any second choice goalkeeper knows you must take your chance when it comes – and this is his.