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FEATURE | Alexander Nübel – the next star from Schalke’s conveyor belt of talent

Schalke is a churning factory for top goalkeepers. From Manuel Neuer and Jens Lehmann to Oliver Reck, many stoppers have passed through Gelsenkirchen before making a name for themselves at other clubs. If enough attention hasn’t been paid yet, the club has a new man who could well follow in those well-regarded footsteps.

Alexander Nübel, 23, has already been linked with moves to both Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig. It hardly comes a surprise considering how the goalkeeper has grown in stature over the last few months.

The Royal Blues have been the talk of the town in the Bundesliga this season, along with Marco Rose’s Borussia Mönchengladbach. While David Wagner’s high pressing and aggressive style has got Schalke playing some lovely football, the club’s success hasn’t just been down to players like Suat Serdar and Amine Harit’s impressive performance going forward.

Schalke also boast of the third-best defensive record in the league, having let in three more goals than Wolfsburg and one more than leaders Gladbach this season. Salif Sane has had a very good season so far, but Nübel deserves credit for how Schalke tend to stay away from letting in goals.

Before this campaign started off, Nübel was part of the German Under-21s side that reached the final of the Under-21s European Championship earlier this year. He played five games in that tournament, helping the side reach the final of the competition for the second time in a row.

His breakout season isn’t the ongoing campaign though. Nübel played as many as 18 games for the senior Schalke side in their disappointing Bundesliga campaign last season. He could keep only five clean sheets during this time but managed to keep two of them in Schalke’s Champions League games against Galatasaray at home and away.

The club’s former boss Domenico Tedesco gambled by starting Nübel in a crucial home game against Wolfsburg, dropping the experienced Ralf Fährmann to the bench. There were some questions about the decision before the game. But Tedesco’s decision certainly paid off as Nübel impressed between the sticks.

He pulled off four saves in the game, helping his side pick up a crucial 2-1 win at the Veltins Arena.

And after Fährmann left for newly promoted Premier League side Norwich City on loan this past summer, the path opened up for Nübel to become a first choice, even though Tedesco left in March. This season, Nübel has grown in stature. He has captained the club in all the games that he has played, appearing nine times in the Bundesliga and twice in the cup.

In Schalke’s 2-1 win over RB Leipzig, Nübel was key. The German made a fascinating triple save in the first half to deny Die Roten Bullen from going ahead. While his indecisiveness led to Leipzig’s goal in the second half, but it was a mere consolation as goals from Harit, Sane and Welsh youngster Rabbi Matondo had already given Wagner’s side a 3-0 lead.

Nübel has become well known for his ability on the ball too, showing how he is very much a modern-day goalkeeper and that comparisons with Neuer himself are not a simple case of overhyping. He is crucial to allowing Schalke to build from the back and being good on the ball is a necessity when a goalkeeper plays in a side like David Wagner’s, one that presses high with the forward players and the defensive midfielder in Omar Mascarell often dropping in as the third centre-back.

The former Paderborn man has played a total of 137 short passes this season, out of which only four have been unsuccessful. That is a brilliant stat for any goalkeeper in Germany or elsewhere. He has played the third-highest number of short passes in the league, only behind Neuer and Oliver Baumann.

This ability of his roots from how he used to be an outfield player during his early days as a footballer. Nübel played as a striker during his time with childhood club TSV Tudorf. When Paderborn signed him in the summer of 2005, they initially played him as a central midfielder and then played him as the holding midfielder because of his ability on the ball. Once they noticed that the youngster had good hands, they completely transformed him into a goalkeeper.

Nübel never played a minute of senior football for Paderborn though. Before joining Schalke in the summer of 2015, Nübel did appear 12 times for Paderborn II. He played in the Westfalenliga 1, keeping four clean sheets in the 2014/15 campaign.

Since then, his growth has been a very steady one indeed. He has gone from a youngster to a regular first-team player at the Veltins Arena. With his current deal at the club running out at the end of the summer, it seems as though he could well be off to greener pastures in the summer.

But as much as he is an exciting prospect, a goalkeeper like him needs the right system to not face a barrage of shots on goal. Schalke’s system has made then a very secure unit defensively. They have let in only the third-lowest number of shots on goal this season- 11.4, behind only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. That makes it easy for goalkeepers, when it comes to being called into action regularly.

He has this barrier in front of him that has hardly been tested too much. That has worked to Nübel’s advantage. While the triple save away to Leipzig said a lot about how he can hold his own, the error said that he might have things to learn when being called into action regularly.

His abilities on the ball can’t be questioned, but it will be a wise move if he stays at Schalke for another season by signing a new deal – with his current contract expiring in the summer – before leaving the following summer in 2021.

By Kaustubh Pandey.

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