Heavily criticised upon his arrival at AS Monaco, German goalkeeper Alexander Nübel told Monaco Life that he is rediscovering his best form following a difficult spell at Bayern Munich.
Nübel felt the weight of expectation upon his arrival in the Principality last summer. Signing on a two-year loan deal from Bayern Munich, his adaptation to life in red and white perhaps wasn’t as smooth as expected. Whilst Nübel is the first to admit that he wasn’t playing at his highest level during the opening weeks of his spell in Monaco, he also believes that the unshakable comparisons to Bayern Munich teammate and German great Manuel Neuer played a part in shaping those negative perceptions.
“I think the comparisons [to Neuer] was part [of the criticism.] Luckily I couldn’t read the newspapers here,” he joked. “The criticism was very hard, too hard in the beginning. I wasn’t playing at my top level, but nor was I playing as badly as what was being reported. You have to handle it. For me, the most important thing is the criticism from my goalkeeping coach, and from the manager. These guys tell me the truth every day.”
In what was a period of adaptation, Nübel was grateful for the fellow German players within the squad, with whom he could converse and take his mind off what was happening on the pitch. “Kevin [Volland] and Ismail [Jakobs] were very important to me, especially Kevin, who arrived one year earlier than me. It’s much easier because I can speak German with them…it’s important because you can also talk about something else after training, after the games. We could just drink coffee and talk about other topics,” said Nübel.
However, despite his difficult start to life in France, he retained the support of then head coach Niko Kovac. “It always helps when you have the confidence of the coaches and the manager. With Niko it was helpful. At the start, I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” he said.
Under Kovac and then under Philippe Clement, with whom Nübel says he shares a “good connection”, Nübel has remained an undisputed starter in league games and European competitions. Radsolaw Majecki struggled to challenge Nübel’s supremacy and has headed out on loan to satellite club Cercle Brugge, whilst Thomas Didillon has made the opposite journey to take the place of no.2 at Monaco. “It’s always good to have a coach who sees your potential, and so you try to give everything back during the games,” said Nübel.
He quickly began repaying that faith. Last season, only OGC Nice’s Walter Benítez (7.1) prevented more goals in Ligue 1 than Nübel (4.8), whilst his confidence with the ball at his feet allowed Monaco to construct attacks from that back.
Having acclimatised somewhat over the summer, Nübel believes that his connection with his defenders has improved further, which shows in his pass completion rate (85% before matchday eight in Ligue 1). “Although I have to learn the language more, on the pitch it’s okay,” he began. “I can communicate with the guys in front of me, in English or in French, so that’s a lot better than before. I think you can see the connection between myself and the guys in front of me is a lot better than last year.”
As a goalkeeper, the connection and communication with the back-line is key, even more so in the modern game, where goalkeepers are no longer expected to be merely shot-stoppers, but also players capable of contributing to build-up play. For Nübel, “rhythm” is also key, and having lost it during his time at Bayern Munich, where he played just four times in the 2020/21 season, he now believes he is rediscovering it.
“I think I now have my rhythm back from my time at Schalke. That was also a factor in my difficult start, as it wasn’t easy without rhythm, without games at Bayern. Now it’s much better,” he said.
He continued, “Rhythm is very important for a goalkeeper. Normally you don’t change ‘keepers during a game, or even during a season. It’s something different compared to training. The rhythm and on-pitch actions are sometimes completely different. Seeing where the space is on the pitch is an important feeling to get back. At Bayern, it was difficult, although I did learn about mentality and passion.”
Having rediscovered his rhythm, he is now displaying some of his finest form in a Monaco jersey. Although the Bayern Munich loanee said he “doesn’t want to be spectacular,” his sprawling, finger-tip saves have certainly caught the eyes of Monaco fans in recent weeks.
Underpinning his recent visually-impressive performances are a set of impressive stats. No goalkeeper has made more saves than Nübel (38) in Ligue 1 this season, he has been awarded man of the match on three occasions, and he has kept three clean sheets in the last five games in all competitions. His performances also earned him AS Monaco’s player of the month award for September.
Rhythm, growing confidence, and improved communication with his back-line have certainly aided his recent fine form, but the impact of the club’s goalkeeper coach, Frederic de Boever, is far from negligible. “He’s a great goalkeeper coach. He helps me a lot and talks about my game: how we keep the ball, what positions I decide to take up, and when to be more offensive or defensive,” said Nübel.
His performances are converting into points; having faced more shots than any other goalkeeper in the league this season, Monaco’s start-of-season report could look very different if not for the German goalkeeper.
In moving from Bayern Munich, he has deviated from the path of fellow German and former teammate Neuer. Prior to that, he had followed in the footsteps of the German international goalkeeper, by playing for Schalke before moving to the Bavarian giants.
Nübel says that reports of a strained relationship between the pair whilst at Bayern Munich were false, adding, “I learnt a lot about his general game and his connection with the guys in front of him… He’s one of the best goalkeepers ever.”
He also credits Neuer for redefining the role of the goalkeeper: “He 100% changed [the way we see goalkeeping.] He is always trying to keep possession… When you see the top teams in Europe, they all have goalkeepers who play well with their feet… At Bayern, we, as goalkeepers, played a lot of possession games with the team and you saw barely any difference between him and the outfield players during those games.”
Despite his clear admiration for Neuer, his mere presence at Bayern Munich throws Nübel’s future into doubt. He is no longer willing to be a no.2, and given that Neuer’s contract runs until 2024, Nübel’s return to the Bundesliga champions is therefore in grave doubt.
“Game time is definitely the most important thing. If Manuel Neuer is still at Bayern, and he does have a contract until 2024, it makes no sense to go back to Bayern… I have a contract at Bayern, but I also think for them it makes no sense to have both me and Manuel,” admitted Nübel.
Asked where he sees himself next season, he replied, “There are good options to play at a good level. Everything is open. [Monaco] are also an option, of course.”
Should he continue to replicate his performances on a weekly basis, he won’t be short of options. At Monaco, he is appreciated, not least by Clement, who following the club’s 2-1 win against Lyon earlier in September, said, “For me, Alex has the quality to become one of the best goalkeepers in Europe, in the top 10.”
Whilst a player clearly in Neuer’s mould, he has deviated from his compatriot’s path and is currently writing his own story at Monaco. Only time will tell how lengthy their shared narrative will last.
Photo by AS Monaco