In the end, Marc-Andre ter Stegen let his actions speak louder than words. On Tuesday evening, the Barcelona keeper was indefatigable, almost single-handedly keeping a ferocious Borussia Dortmund at bay and sparing his side from defeat in their opening Champions League game of the season.
It was a statement performance. In the last few weeks, Ter Stegen’s ongoing battle with Manuel Neuer for the Germany number one jersey has flared up into a rather petty war of the words, and the 27-year-old will have wanted to make a point when he returned to his home country for the match against Dortmund. He did so spectacularly.
‘We all know Marc-Andre is a world class goalkeeper,’ said a glum Marco Reus after being repeatedly thwarted by Ter Stegen’s heroics, which included a second-half penalty save.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen almost single-handedly kept Borussia Dortmund at bay on Tuesday
Ter Stegen is involved in a rather petty war of words with German compatriot Manuel Neuer
Germany coach Joachim Low professes to know that too, and yet he continues to put his faith in veteran Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer. Despite constant assurances that he will get his chance, Ter Stegen’s patience has started to run thin, as his brilliant performances with Barcelona are not rewarded with game time for the national team.
The last international break, in which a benched Ter Stegen sat stony-faced through a 4-2 defeat to the Netherlands and a 2-0 win in Northern Ireland, seemed to have pushed him over the edge. Though he retained a dignified silence in the national team camp, his frustration came tumbling out in fluent Spanish upon his return to Barcelona.
‘It’s hard to find an explanation. I give my best in every game, I try everything to get time in goal. This trip with the national team was a tough blow for me,’ he told reporters at a promotional event in the Catalan capital last week.
The comments naturally made headlines in Germany, and prompted a response from Neuer. Usually reticent and gracious on the topic of Ter Stegen, the Bayern keeper can snark like the best of them if he feels the need to, and sent a haughty barb back to Barcelona on Monday.
‘He didn’t say anything when he was in the national team. I don’t know if (his comments) help, because we are a team and should present ourselves as such,’ he said.
Bayern Munich goalkeeper Neuer is currently keeping Ter Stegen out of Germany’s side
The last international break pushed Ter Stegen, who sat on the bench, over the edge
Ter Stegen then sniffily suggested that it was not up to Neuer to comment on his feelings, and made his point with a brilliant performance in front of the Dortmund crowd on Tuesday. That put an end to the bickering for the time being, but for Joachim Low, the selection headache has not gone away.
‘We can understand Marc-Andre’s disappointment, but the fact is that only one person can play,’ said Low this week. This is also a familiar problem for Low, who was assistant coach back in 2006, when Jens Lehmann and Oliver Kahn were at each other’s throats in a battle to be named number one.
Lehmann won that battle, and Low’s tenure as head coach started with Kahn’s retirement from international football. This time, at the other end of his career, it could be Low himself who falls victim to the goalkeeper conundrum.
It is not that picking Neuer is categorically an error of judgement. For all Ter Stegen’s quality, Neuer too is in excellent form, as he showed against Leipzig last weekend, and there is an argument for keeping an experienced captain on deck as Germany make the transition to the younger generation.
Yet Low’s handling of the goalkeeper question seems to embody many of the problems he has faced since last year’s World Cup debacle. Just as with other issues such as the sacking of Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, the Mesut Ozil affair or the non-selection of Leroy Sane, the coach has sometimes seemed too hesitant, and sometimes too hasty. The lasting impression is one of an inconsistent leader, a coach who veers between complacency and panic.
Ter Stegen’s international appearances this year amount to a 45-minute cameo against Serbia
Jens Lehmann won the battle over Oliver Kahn in 2006, when Joachim Low was assistant
Ever since last autumn, Low has repeatedly insisted that Ter Stegen will get chances to prove himself in a Germany shirt, both in friendlies and competitive games. In March, he said that Ter Stegen and Neuer would compete for the number one jersey in 2019. But the promises remain unfulfilled. Ter Stegen’s international appearances this year amount to a 45-minute cameo in a friendly against Serbia in March.
Low has excuses. He wanted to pick Ter Stegen in June, but injury got in the way. The Barcelona keeper was then reportedly in line to take the gloves in Northern Ireland earlier this month, before defeat to the Netherlands forced Low to backtrack and plump once again for the familiar option in Neuer.
As with so many issues, the Germany coach remains haunted by his mistakes last summer. With Neuer having just returned from a year out injured and a 26-year-old Ter Stegen in the form of his life, the World Cup would have been the perfect opportunity to promote the Barcelona keeper. Having missed that chance, Low is in a pickle of his own making.
His repeated assurances now only give the impression of wanting to wish the problem away. But goalkeepers as good as Ter Stegen will never be happy with the role of reserve. As he said himself on Tuesday: ‘You can’t announce a competition for places and then not expect people to be upset when they don’t get picked.’
Whether with actions or words, Ter Stegen will continue to voice his frustration. And sooner or later, Low will have to give him a proper chance.
Low will sooner or later have to give the Barcelona shot-stopper a chance between the sticks