When a deflected shot from Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich slipped under the leg of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Yann Sommer, Borussia-Park held its collective breath.
The Bundesliga-leading Foals were hosting the reigning champions Bayern Munich on Saturday, December 7. Gladbach were just four points up on the Bavarians going into Matchday 14, and with the likes of RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund hot on their tails, a good result was needed to keep the hosts in the driver’s seat.
Gladbach had already gotten lucky a few times. Earlier, Thomas Müller directed a shot wide of their goal despite being positioned in the six-yard box. Soon after, an attempt from Robert Lewandowski, the Bundesliga’s top scorer, curled just wide of Sommer’s left post.
Alas, their luck seemed to have run out at the half-hour mark. Kimmich’s long-range attempt deflected off of a player in the Gladbach box en route to the goal. Sommer, who was peaking to his right to catch a glimpse of the attempt, saw the deflection late and couldn’t make a strong effort to stop the shot. He dived to his left but the ball squeezed underneath his shin and trickled towards the goal line.
But Sommer was not about to give up. As the Bayern Munich players raised their arms in celebration, Sommer reached as far back as he could. Like an octopus constricting its fleeing prey, Sommer seized the ball with the index finger of his left hand before pulling it towards his chest. Kimmich and his teammates looked towards referee Marco Fritz with the expectation of a goal, but the 42-year-old pointed to his watch. No goal had been scored.
The save was a great example of Sommer’s quick reactions and flexibility. Few goalkeepers would be able to recover from the initial stop and reach back in time to stop a ball that was nearly completely over the goal line. The save needed quick thinking and a high level of elasticity to pull off. Luckily for Gladbach, Sommer had both.
Sommer’s moment proved to be the difference-maker. Gladbach emerged victorious by a 2-1 score, extending their lead over Bayern Munich by three points. It also confirmed that they’d finish the weekend in first place; their eighth-straight matchday at the top of the Bundesliga.
No doubt, Sommer’s teammates will feel as though they were blessed by a higher power. They should be used to it by now; it’s the kind of stop the 30-year-old has been pulling off for the past five-and-a-half years.
When Sommer joined Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2014, the Swiss goalkeeper had already been a relatively successful player in his home country.
The then-26-year-old had most recently played for FC Basel, Switzerland’s second most successful club. Sommer was part of four-straight Swiss league championships with the side and produced one of his best-ever performances in the 2012 Swiss Cup final.
Positive results had followed Sommer internationally too. Sommer captained the Switzerland youth team that reached the final of the 2011 U-21 Euros — a side that also included Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, and Admir Mehmedi. Following Diego Benaglio’s international retirement in August 2014, Sommer was promoted to the senior team’s starting position, ahead of Roman Bürki.
Nonetheless, Sommer’s height drew doubt from some Bundesliga skeptics. Sommer was undersized for a goalkeeper; he measured just 183 cm tall (6 ft. 0). This made him the shortest goalkeeper in the entire Bundesliga. He was 2 cm shorter than Paderborn’s Lukas Kruse, the next league’s next shortest goalkeeper, and a full 14 cm shorter than Koen Casteels and Ralf Fährmann, the Bundesliga’s tallest goalkeepers. With an average goalkeeper height of around 190 cm (just under 6 ft. 3), Sommer was significantly below the median.
It didn’t help that Sommer was succeeding a Gladbach fan-favourite, Marc-André ter Stegen. The young German goalkeeper was born and raised in Mönchengladbach and had risen up through the academy to save the senior team from relegation in 2011. Ter Stegen spent three more seasons with the Foals, twice backstopping them to a top-five finish in the league, before joining global powerhouse FC Barcelona in 2014.
Sommer was also a good 4 cm shorter than Ter Stegen.
It didn’t take long for Sommer to extinguish the flames of doubt, though. He immediately proved that he can take Gladbach to the next level. Sommer played all 34 of Gladbach’s Bundesliga matches that season and guided them to a 19-9-6 record (wins-draws-losses). He conceded just 26 goals — the second-lowest in the Bundesliga — and he turned aside 83% of the shots he faced, the best in the entire league among starting goalkeepers.
Off of Sommer’s form, Gladbach finished third in the Bundesliga and automatically qualified for the 2015-16 Champions League. The finish was Gladbach’s best ever in the 21st century, and it marked the first time in nearly four decades that the Foals qualified to the main stage of Europe’s elite cup competition.
Sommer’s numbers took a dip in the following three seasons, although he did earn Swiss Player of the Year honours in both 2016 and 2018. He was the first goalkeeper since former international teammate Diego Benaglio to achieve that honour.
Those recognitions came off of the back of the 2016 Euros and the 2018 World Cup. Both competitions saw Sommer excel, with performances against France in 2016 and Brazil in 2018 standing out in particular. The games were enough to earn him interest from other European clubs, including Marc-André ter Stegen’s FC Barcelona.
Sommer would decide against moving, opting instead to stay in Mönchengladbach and improve on a season that saw his club finish ninth in the Bundesliga.
Riding off of a very good 2018 World Cup, Sommer’s 2018-19 campaign saw him post some of the top single-season numbers of his Gladbach career. He kept 13 clean sheets and maintained a save percentage of over 72%, despite facing over 150 shots. He was one of the league’s busiest goalkeepers — he played every minute of the season, one of only two goalkeepers to do so — but he still placed in the top 5 of all the major goalkeeper stats.
Despite scoring the least amount of goals among the league’s top five club, Gladbach finished fifth in the Bundesliga. Their finish was largely thanks to Sommer, who conceded the third-least amount of goals among starting goalkeepers.
Sommer hasn’t skipped a step this season. In 14 league appearances, the 30-year-old has conceded just 16 goals. His goals-against-average of 1.14 is second only to RB Leipzig’s Péter Gulácsi’s mark of 1.08. But Sommer has posted a better save percentage. In fact, Sommer’s save percentage of 72.9% is the highest among all Bundesliga goalkeepers with 10 or more appearances. This has been achieved despite the fact that he’s faced more shots than any other goalkeeper representing a top 10 club.
The stats were enough to warrant him a new contact. On November 29, Sommer and Borussia Mönchengladbach agreed to a two-year contract extension. The new deal will see Sommer stay at the club until 2023 as opposed to 2021 as his previous contract entailed. This means that the Swiss international will be guarding Gladbach’s goal until he’s 34-years-old.
“We’re proud that Yann decided to extend his contract with the team,” said Gladbach Sporting Director Max Eberl. “He arrived here in 2014 to replace Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, so he had big boots to fill. But Yann has developed into one of the best goalies in Europe over the past five-and-a-half years and his impressive performances have played a large part in our recent success. For me, he’s one of Europe’s very best keepers.”
The praise is certainly deserved; few goalkeepers can claim to have been as important to their teams’ potential, both at the club and international levels, as Sommer. Sommer has consistently been one of the Bundesliga’s top goalkeepers, and his performances for Switzerland have gained him some more international fans.
Sommer has remained humble, despite the praise. He thanks the club for continuing to have faith in him, through both the good and the bad.
“I can’t wait to continue on this path with Borussia and I am delighted to be a part of the team,” he said. “Gladbach is a great club and I very much enjoy being here and playing here.
“I’ve gained a lot of valuable experience here and played with some fantastic players. I basically just really enjoy it here, not least because of the tremendous support we get from the fans – all 50,000 of them every home game.”
Sommer’s performance vs. Bayern Munich is the latest in a long list of match-saving outings, and it certainly won’t be the last he produces this season. As Gladbach inches closer to their first Bundesliga title in 40 years, Sommer’s status as one of Europe’s top goalkeepers will only continue to grow.