Sven Ulreich: A life behind Neuer’s giant shadow

Life’s never easy as a reserve goalkeeper, much less if you lurk behind Manuel Neuer. Sven Ulreich has made an example out of his grit and work ethic.
Sven Ulreich
Art by Debanjan Chowdhury

As the camera slowly focuses on his face, a single bead of sweat forms on his forehead, before manoeuvring its way down his brow and cheek, before dripping off his flesh and out of shot. Confusion has taken over his expression, along with a large dosage of fear and a shot of adrenaline running through his veins. This is the moment he had been there for all along but didn’t expect, or necessarily want to come. With the star of the show down and out, it is now his responsibility to step into the spotlight and ensure that the show goes swimmingly.

The life of a back-up goalkeeper is similar to that of an understudy in a film or play, in the sense that the reality for them is that they will only fulfil the role they have trained so tirelessly for if someone else becomes injured or ill. The concept of someone profiting from their colleague’s injury is a harsh but true one, something that  people in both these professions are fully aware of. Many goalkeepers will hope that once they get their chance to take centre stage, they will be able to overthrow their teammate and competition, as Nick Pope has seemingly done to Tom Heaton at Burnley. However, when the man you have to overtake is Manuel Neuer, widely revered as one of the best goalkeepers in recent times, this task becomes even more difficult.

The man with that thankless task is Sven Ulreich. The 29-year-old stopper joined Bayern Munich from Stuttgart in the summer of 2015 and before this season had made only 10 appearances in two full campaigns with the German giants. However, when Neuer suffered his second metatarsal break in six months in a 4-0 win against Mainz, it was Ulreich who was called upon to protect the Bayern goal. His opening scene in the spotlight that came with being Bayern’s temporary number one was navigated with comfort, with Bayern cruising to a 3-0 victory away to Schalke.

The greatest moments in any show are further sweetened by the contrast between them and the sour taste of failure early on. Ulreich had this bitter blow in his second game following Neuer’s injury. With Bayern 2-0 up with just under an hour gone, Maximilian Arnold struck a free kick from range. It was not especially powerful and was straight at Ulreich, giving him enough time for it to be comfortably dealt with. Ulreich didn’t manage this though, throwing a single hand in the air, which led to him palming the ball into his own net. There was clear frustration for the keeper as he smashed the ball back into his own net in retaliation. This frustration would only grow when Daniel Didavi’s header went in off the post, costing Bayern two points.

Following this he was ridiculed on social media and in the press, with constant comparisons between himself and the man machine he was there to replace. His answer to the media was simple but effective: “Manu is the world’s best goalkeeper so it’s not easy to replace him. But I’m not Manuel Neuer, I’m Sven Ulreich.” Simple statements often carry the most impact and it was the defiance and confidence in Ulreich’s statement which showed he would not allow the pressure to get to him. In the 11 games that separated his mistake and an adductor problem which kept him out for two games, Bayern drew once and lost once, winning the rest, with Ulreich keeping five clean sheets. He even managed to get an assist when he knocked the ball forward for Kingsley Coman’s opener at Celtic Park in the Champions League.

However, this wasn’t his biggest moment. Ulreich shone brightest in penalty situations. He managed to stop Dortmund’s Sebastian Rode and Marc Bartra in a DFL-Supercup penalty shootout to secure the trophy for Bayern, as well as saved against Timo Werner in another shootout to get past RB Leipzig in the DFB Pokal. One moment that was arguably just as sweet as those mentioned came against his former club Stuttgart upon his return after his two-game absence. Thomas Müller had put Bayern ahead with just over 10 minutes remaining, but deep into added time, Niklas Süle fouled Santiago Ascacibar in the box. It was Chadrac Akolo who stepped up to take it. He put it to Ulreich’s right, but the keeper was equal to it, palming it away before Jerome Boateng smashed it clear as the final whistle rung round the stadium. Ulreich was coy, almost awkward, in his celebration, resisting as Müller lifted his hands towards the sky, though there was clear joy on his face as the stopper was mobbed by his team mates with Jupp Heynckes grinning with satisfaction on the sideline.

Every script has its peaks and troughs and just like actors on the stage, goalkeepers are often remembered for their mistakes. Ulreich had been consistently brilliant in the Bayern goal since that Wolfsburg match. But it was he who had one of the most astronomic of blunders of any goalkeeper in the world this season, on one of the most famous stages in football, the Santiago Bernabéu in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal. Bayern had lost the first leg 2-1 at the Allianz Arena, but showed that they were far from beaten when Joshua Kimmich pounced on the ball which was lingering in the box, firing it past Keylor Navas within three minutes of the second leg’s starting whistle. Real Madrid wereable to get themselves back in front in the tie just after the 10-minute mark, as Marcelo’s pinpoint cross was headed in by Benzema.

There wasn’t too much that Ulreich could have done about this, but that is not the case for Benzema’s second. With under a minute of the second half gone, Corentin Tolisso played the ball back to his goalkeeper. It is difficult to even attempt to work out what was going through Ulreich’s mind at this point, as he seemingly forgot everything he had previously learned. He went to the ground as though to pick the ball up, pulling away at the last second and throwing his leg at it in desperation. This was incredibly reminiscent of countless movie scenes where everything slows down in the main character’s head while everyone else moves at full speed. Only, everything was not the same when Ulreich caught up with everyone else’s timing; the ball was in the net and Madrid’s French forward was by the corner flag being rushed by his teammates, while all those in a red shirt looked on in bemusement.

James Rodriguez scored against his parent club to give Bayern hope, but in the end it was not enough. Many Bayern players will have been disappointed with their performances in the tie – Franck Ribery had not met his usually high standards and Robert Lewandowski had failed to score in either leg, but it was Ulreich left on the turf when everyone else had gone in.

The stage can be a very lonely place when things go wrong, with every flaw laid bare for the  thousands watching on. The lasting image of this match is not be Benzema celebrating one of his two goals or Cristiano Ronaldo revelling another chance at Champions League glory, it is the solitary figure of Sven Ulreich crouched on the turf with the Bernabeu crowd looking on while all his teammates sought the refuge of their changing room.

As much as that image defined the night, it should not be how Ulreich’s season is remembered. The German was key to Bayern Munich’s 28th Bundesliga title. The league campaign may have ended poorly, with a 4-1 loss against Stuttgart, but with a 21 lead point gap at the top of the table, that didn’t matter;the celebrations that followed showed that. Ulreich was at the centre of the celebrations, joy etched across his face as he lifted the Meisterschale above his head. As is the traditional way in Germany, Bayern celebrated by throwing beer over each other. One image that came from this showed the relationship between Ulreich and the man he replaced. Neuer playfully poured the liquid over the Ulreich’s head while he gave an interview before grabbing and shaking him in celebration. Next season it would be Munich and Germany’s number one back in goal, but this year it had been Ulreich who had helped the club towards the Bundesliga title and Neuer was clearly delighted for him.

The final scene in the story of Ulreich’s season in the spotlight came in the DFB Pokal final against Eintracht Frankfurt, whose manager Niko Kovač will be taking the helm at the Allianz Arena this summer. However, things were not going to plan. A brace from Ante Rebić had cancelled out Robert Lewandowski’s strike. It seemed there would be hope for Bayern when a penalty call went to VAR in the dying moments, with Kevin Prince Boateng having kicked Javi Martinez in the box. Referee Felix Zwayer controversially deemed it not to be a penalty, calling it as a corner kick.

With Ulreich in the opposition box, Bayern will have been hoping for their magic moment to take the tie to extra time. However, as the ball was headed away, Mijat Gaćinović got to it ahead of Kingsley Coman before tearing away towards the unprotected Bayern goal. Ulreich and his team mates sprinted back as if looking to protect a lover who was written into a script’s kill-off list, even as Eintracht’s Serbian midfielder raced through and passed it into the gaping net. As the ball entered the goal mouth and Frankfurt’s bench mobbed their goalscorer, Bayern’s players collapsed to the floor. This was not the curtain call that Ulreich would have hoped for, with no encore or round of applause following the  second trophy of the season. Instead he and his team mates watched on in horror at what they could have had.

This result alongside the costly mistake against Real Madrid will leave a tinge of disappointment for Ulreich and his team mates. That comes on top of Joachim Low’s decision to leave him out of Germany’s World Cup squad; instead including Kevin Trapp who made just 13 appearances for PSG this season.  Despite these disappointments, the Bundesliga title and numerous impressive performances mean that Ulreich’s season in the spotlight contained success. As the curtain rises for Bayern’s season opener, it will be Manuel Neuer who takes centre stage between the posts. Meanwhile, Sven Ulreich will be back on the bench and out of the eyesight of the crowd. However, while he works behind the scenes and waits for the moment he has to step in again, he will be able to look back to his season in the spotlight, using it as motivation to ensure he is ready when he next gets the call to take centre stage.

Danny Lewis

Freelance sport writer and final year Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University with a fascination for football's obscure stories.