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Profiling Alexander Nubel: The rock of Ruhr Valley | SK Wonderkids

Rahul Iyer
ANALYST
Feature
Modified 21 Dec 2019, 01:05 IST

Alexander Nubel; the long-term heir to Manuel Neuer?
Alexander Nubel; the long-term heir to Manuel Neuer?

Alexander Nubel was born on 30 September 1996, in Paderborn, in the eastern North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany. Now 23 years old, a few may not agree to the classing of him as a 'wonderkid', but given that he does play as a goalkeeper, it seems fair, as they usually take longer to develop than their outfield counterparts.

The city of Paderborn has been a sporting hub for several years now, and it is interesting that the young Nubel was drawn towards football, given the popularity of various American sports in the region. In fact, the local baseball (Paderborn Untouchables), American football (Paderborn Dolphins) and basketball (Paderborn Baskets) teams have all enjoyed far more success than SC Paderborn 07, the footballing unit in the region.

Nubel may play as a goalkeeper, but his time there has been limited. Indeed, the youngster only took to the position at the age of 14, after he thoroughly enjoyed his time under the goalkeeping coach at Paderborn in 2010, the only one at the club at the time. In his own words, Nubel recalls of the switch, "I think it was the right decision!"

Nubel as a teenager at Paderborn
Nubel as a teenager at Paderborn

He spent 10 years (5 of them as an outfield player) between 2005 and 2015 at SC Paderborn's youth academy, after joining them from local side TSV Tudorf. In 2015, FC Schalke 04 forked out €600,000 to prise him away from Paderborn and bring him to Gelsenkirchen. He played mainly for the Royal Blues' B team, FC Schalke 04 II, in the German Regionalliga, and was handed his first-team debut by head coach Andre Breitenreiter on 14 May 2016 when he replaced first-choice stopper Ralf Fahrmann in a 4-1 win over TSG Hoffenheim.

He had to wait for his next appearance, however, which only came at the end of the 2017/18 season, nearly a full 2 years after his first. At the start of the subsequent Bundesliga campaign, it seemed as though Nubel was destined to another season of warming the bench. But, halfway through the season, manager Domenico Tedesco dropped the more senior Fahrmann and showed faith in the Paderborn-native as the club's first-choice goalkeeper. He made 18 appearances over the course of that campaign.

Nubel took the Schalke captaincy off Ralf Fahrmann this summer
Nubel took the Schalke captaincy off Ralf Fahrmann this summer

At the start of the current Bundesliga season, in a surprising move, Nubel was named club captain by new manager David Wagner, as Schalke looked to slowly phase out the likes of Fahrmann, and give more responsibility to the younger players. Nubel has not yet missed a league minute this season in 11 games, contributing his fair share to ensure that Schalke currently have the joint-fourth-best defensive record in the league.

Nubel is a modern goalkeeper in every sense of the word. In an era where keepers are expected to be comfortable with the ball at their feet, as well as when facing shots on goal, Nubel fits in perfectly, just like another prominent goalkeeper from Schalke, who now plies his trade at Bayern Munich - Manuel Neuer. A simple search of Nubel's name on Youtube bombards one with videos comparing him with the current German number 1. He could have been compared with any number of German legends, given the nation's propensity for producing world-class players, especially goalkeepers. Oliver Kahn, Frank Rost, Jens Lehmann, Bert Trautmann, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Bernd Leno, Roman Weidenfeller and Kevin Trapp, all fantastic players in their own right, are just a few of the illustrious pantheon of goal-guarding Germans.

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However, the comparisons with Neuer are entirely justified, and while he may not quite possess the ability of the man who is a full 10 years his senior, it is easy to see how and why they have happened. There is no doubt that Nubel's formative years as a player in outfield have held him in good stead as he made the switch to keeper.

Nubel has already made 29 saves this season
Nubel has already made 29 saves this season

Like Neuer, he is keen to come rushing off his line to snuff out danger before it can reach his goal-line, and he is extremely adept at doing it, often clearing through balls from opposition attackers before they can reach their intended targets. On occasion, he also relies on his lightning-quick reflexes to help him keep the ball out of the net. So far this season, Nubel has made 29 saves in 11 matches, an average of 2.63 saves per game. At the same age, in the season 2009/10, Neuer made 79 saves across the campaign, an average of 2.32 per game. In addition, 16 of Nubel's saves, or 55.2%, have come from shots taken inside the penalty area. 10 years ago, Neuer made 55.7% of his saves from such shot locations.

The other facet of Nubel's game which leads to comparisons with Neuer is his top-notch distribution of the ball. With goalkeepers, it is important to note that overall pass percentage may be a misleading statistic, as they make a large number of accurate short passes, with no pressure at all on them, which can easily skew the ratio. As a result, we look mainly at the long ball completion rate for a goalkeeper, which is often more accurate than pure pass accuracy.

Nubel
Nubel's long ball accuracy is something he can improve

So far this season, Nubel has completed 65 of his 174 attempted long passes, or 37.4% of them. It's not bad, but it can easily be improved upon. Indeed, only 8 keepers in the Bundesliga this season, including Neuer, have a better long ball completion rate. At the same stage of his career, Neuer completed a quite staggering 55.6% of his attempted long passes, with 322 of his 579 finding their intended target. Nubel has some way to go before he can match those kinds of numbers, but no one doubts his potential to become as good as the World Cup winner. If he becomes even half the player the current German number 1 is, he will have had an extremely satisfying career. Nubel has already represented the German U-21 team 17 times, and was a vital cog in the side during their run at the European Championships this past summer.

Almost eerily similarly to Neuer, the next step for Nubel could be a move to Bayern Munich in the summer, which, if he were to make, he would do so one year younger than his senior was when he moved. Nubel's contract is up in 2020, and though Schalke confirmed in August that they had offered him an extension, he has not signed as of yet, which is extremely worrying for the club. Bayern does seem like the next natural step in his progression as a player, and it would not be out of the question to see him there sooner rather than later.

Published 21 Nov 2019, 22:54 IST
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