14th December 2017.
A goalkeeper's job is often a thankless one. As the last line of defence, they represent a team's final hope of thwarting an opposing striker who has evaded the attention of the defence, with the odds almost always stacked against them.

They also spend every minute on the pitch operating with a greater degree of jeopardy hanging over their head than any other player. A striker can fluff his lines all game then become a hero if the ball rolls in off his shin; one mistake from a keeper invariably leads to a goal conceded, whereas even the most glorious save merely maintains the status quo.

But there is a vanguard of custodians demanding more from their role, a greater involvement is their teams' prospects with the ball, rather than focussing solely on keeping it out of their net. The role of sweeper-keeper a goalkeeper who occupies an advanced station when their side is in possession, ready to contribute to passing moves and race forth to nullify an opponents' attempts to counter is seen throughout the game with increasing regularity.

The most famous exponent is Bayern Munich's World Cup-winning No.1, Manuel Neuer, while Brazilian keeper Ederson is earning rave reviews in a similar role at Manchester City. But Barcelona's Marc-André ter Stegen, still only 25, is threatening to elevate himself beyond them all, such has been the rate of his development in all aspects of his game of late.

A first-team regular at Borussia Mönchengladbach while still in his teens, ter Stegen was earmarked for stardom between the sticks from the off. But, when his big break arrived in the form of a €12 million move to Barcelona in the summer of 2014, the German keeper didn't have things all his own way.

The Catalan giants had also signed experienced Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, and the former Real Sociedad man was installed as the Camp Nou's regular No.1 for La Liga games, with ter Stegen rotating into the side in the Champions League and Copa del Rey.

Although occasional mistakes of handling and positioning betrayed his youth, just 22 when he arrived in Spain, ter Stegen proved his worth and backed up then-manager Luis Enrique's faith in him by helping Barça triumph in Europe's premier club competition and the domestic cup as part of a treble.

His development over the next 12 months in the same secondary role brought Barcelona's management to the point where a tough decision would have to be made: ter Stegen was too good to warm the bench on a weekly basis; it was him or Bravo.

Bravo was sold to Manchester City and ter Stegen assumed first-choice status in La Liga and the Champions League. He was more than ready for the opportunity, and his unique skillset allowed Enrique to depend on the German shot-stopper in ways that would simply not be possible with most keepers.

Although his reactions are world class and his presence and handling has reached the top level, his touch (with his feet), passing and coolness under pressure has seen him become crucial to the way Barcelona defend, relieve pressure and build attacks.

With an average pass accuracy above 80 per cent and the ability to play precise balls with either foot over all ranges, the goalkeeper is a readily available passing option for the Blaugrana, and someone who takes an active role in how his side progress up the pitch, breaking the opposition's lines like the deepest of deep-lying playmakers.

Up against a team looking to disrupt their approach play by pressing high and denying the Barça defenders time on the ball in their own half, ter Stegen becomes an outlet, keeping himself open to receive the ball and aiming to play through the press and into midfield.

Last season, ter Stegen made an average of 33.3 passes per 90 minutes the highest average of his Barcelona career, but still some way short of his Gladbach peak (48.8). Perhaps owing to the tactical adjustments of new manager Ernesto Valverde, the German is slightly less involved with the ball at his feet this term, making 29.1 passes per 90, but his ball skills remain an asset for the Camp Nou side.

But ter Stegen is not just a gimmick goalkeeper, someone with an unconventional approach who suits one system well but is lacking in fundamental areas. Over the last 12 months, the 25-year-old has been playing at a level which is now seeing him discussed as quite possibly the best keeper in Europe.

His stunning performance in the Bernabéu in April allowed Barcelona to inflict a dramatic 3-2 victory over bitter rivals Real Madrid, while the Blaugrana's unbeaten start to the new campaign would not have been possible without the consistent heroics of their No.1. A fact not lost on his team-mates and manager.

"A huge part of this win belongs to him, he's playing at a great level and was vital in making sure we won the game," said Barça midfielder Sergio Busquets in praise of ter Stegen after a stellar display between the posts in October's 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

"When goalkeepers make mistakes it is very clear, evident, and even when they aren't making errors they still get blamed," Valverde said in early November, prefacing praise of his dependable man at the back.

"But we have to praise everything he [ter Stegen] has done, not just in goal, but also for helping our style of play at the back."

Later in the month, when a wonderful reaction save denied Juventus' Paulo Dybala to secure a draw with the Old Lady and top spot in their Champions League group, Valverde again sung ter Stegen's praises: "He is in a great moment of form, although the plan is for him to not have to make many saves. He didn't have a lot to do today but, yes, he was there to make a decisive save [from Paulo Dybala]. If they'd scored then, they'd have won the game."

Although the Barça goalkeeper has been considered among the finest young players in his position for several seasons now, few would have envisioned a scenario where he would be challenging Neuer for the staring spot in Joachim Löw's Germany side at next year's World Cup in Russia.

But with Neuer's recent injury struggles and the superlative form of the Barcelona man, ter Stegen might just be Germany's safest bet. Until then, he'll keep bailing Barça out as they march towards the La Liga title. Almost almost as important at the Camp Nou as Lionel Messi.

This article has been written by Ryan Baldi for Soccer Box, a great place to purchase all of your official Barcelona goalkeeper jerseys and other team kit.