The title race is over, eh?
With seven games remaining going into Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund had a golden opportunity to close the gap on Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich. The North Rhine-Westphalia-based club were just four points back of their Bavarian opponents, and a win would’ve seen them close the gap to just a single point.
Given Bayern Munich’s tough schedule — they still have to play top-six clubs in Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Mönchengladbach & VfL Wolfsburg — a victory would’ve done wonders for Dortmund’s chances of ending Bayern’s streak of seven-straight league championships.
But alas, it was not meant to be.
It was very much an even match, with Dortmund and Bayern sharing similar stats in possession (51% to 49% for Dortmund), pass succession (87% to 85% for Bayern) and shots (13 to 11 for Dortmund).
Unfortunately for the hosts, what wasn’t even was the score. The visiting Bavarians slipped out of Dortmund with a 1-0 victory courtesy of Joshua Kimmich. The 25-year-old beat Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Bürki with a delicate chip shot from 20 yards out.
The goal was Kimmich’s third of the league season and second in five games, and it has pretty much secured the Bundesliga title for Bayern Munich, who must now defend a seven-point lead in their remaining six games.
Unfortunately, as incredible as Kimmich’s chip was (he called it the “best goal of my career“), the focus following the tiebreaker wasn’t on the audacity of the strike. Rather, most people’s focus seemed to be on Bürki and his less-than-stellar role in the making of the goal.
It’s not the first time Bürki has been held accountable for a bad Dortmund result. But this might be the biggest flub of his club career, given Kimmich’s goal held up as the game-winner and resulted in Bayern increasing their point lead to a near-impossible margin for Dortmund to recover.
If the Bavarians end up clinching their eighth-straight Bundesliga title — which they seem poised to do — it’s going to look really bad on Bürki, whose contract expires next year.
But what specifically did Bürki err on in his reaction to the shot? And what should he have done instead? These are questions a lot of people are asking of the Swiss goalkeeper, but not a lot of good answers are being provided.
For this goalkeeper analysis piece — my first non-classic analysis piece in over three months — I’m going to offer my thoughts on Bürki’s role in this goal, as well as some commentary on a couple of related goalkeeping clichés.
The first thing to note about Roman Bürki on this goal is his positioning.
As Joshua Kimmich moves into a position to chip the ball, Bürki drops from a position near the edge of his six-yard box to one about four yards away from his goalline. This is the position he takes as Kimmich strikes the ball.
This here is Bürki’s first misstep. In this situation, Bürki should not be positioning himself that far off of his line. This is because he’s hindering his ability to react to the ball as quickly as possible by cutting away at how much total time he has to react to it.
Time is one of the most important factors in a goalkeeper’s chances of saving an attempt, and having enough time to process and properly react to an attempt is key. Goalkeepers tend not to have a lot of time to react to a shot (some attempts take less than a second to travel from a shooter’s boot to the goal), so giving yourself as much time to react to a shot is important.
The optimal way to do this is to position yourself as close to your goalline as needed. This allows you to see a shot for as long as possible, giving you time to set yourself, process the attempt and react accordingly.
One goalkeeper who’s particularly good at this is Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris. The French goalkeeper often stays deep in his goal, just a step or two away from his goalline. He’s taken flack for this before, but he’s actually in the right to play this way because it gives him more time to react to an attempt than a goalkeeper who’s positioned closer to his six-yard box.
This thus allows Lloris to make saves that another goalkeeper might not have enough time to react to, such as this diving stop vs. Arsenal in the 2014-15 season.
Bürki does not take after his French counterpart’s tendency, though. Instead, the Swiss goalkeeper positioned himself multiple steps away from his goalline, closer to the edge of his six-yard box rather than his goal. This cut into the amount of time he had to react to the attempt.
Had Bürki positioned himself deeper, he would’ve had more time to process the attempt, and he likely would’ve been able to react with a stronger, better dive.
OK, but hold up. Doesn’t Bürki’s positioning cut down the angle? Sure, Kimmich beat him with the chip shot, but had he decided to drive a regular shot towards the goal, surely Bürki’s cutting of the angle would’ve helped?
It can’t be denied that Bürki’s positioning did cut the angle by a fair margin, and it’s possible that Kimmich saw less of the goal head-on than he would’ve had Bürki positioned himself deeper in his goal.
But goalkeeping isn’t simply just about cutting the angles. Many other factors come into play, some holding more weight than others depending on the situation. These factors range from proper positioning — which involves angles — to giving yourself the optimal time to react to an attempt, as mentioned above.
There’s also a time and place for cutting the angle. In some situations, such as on a 1-v-1 where there’s a high probability of the attacker scoring, cutting the angle is of the essence because it reduces the amount of space the attacker could aim at in that situation.
As an example, take Bürki’s decision to cut the angle during the below 2017-18 DFB-Pokal match. Here, Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski receives the ball near the edge of Bürki’s six-yard box. He has a clear sight of goal, and it’s very likely that he would score from this position.
Because of that, Bürki’s priority is cutting down the angle. Had he stayed deep, Bürki would be showing too much of the goal to Lewandowski, who could smash it in before Bürki could react due to his close proximity to the goal. Cutting the angle helps here because it allows Bürki to cover a large portion of the goal quickly in a situation where the odds are against him.
But on the flip side, some situations call for a goalkeeper to stay deeper in their goal. This is particularly the case on regular shots from outside of the penalty box.
As mentioned earlier, in these cases, a goalkeeper will want to be able to see the shot for as long as possible. This would allow the goalkeeper to get a good read on the shot’s speed and movement, and react accordingly. It doesn’t make sense for a goalkeeper to be positioned too far off of their line in these situations because they’d actually be cutting into how much time they’d have to react to a shot, which is detrimental to a goalkeeper’s overall chances of saving the attempt.
Furthermore, as Kimmich’s goal demonstrates, positioning yourself too far off of your line in these cases opens yourself up to conceding a chip shot. So the reward (cutting the angle) really isn’t worth the risk (less time to react + susceptibility to a chip shot) in most of these scenarios.
That is why Bürki should’ve positioned himself a couple of yards deeper in his goal. Doing so would’ve given him enough time to be able to react to Kimmich’s chip appropriately without leaving him susceptible to this special kind of shot.
Unfortunately, this is a weakness in Bürki’s game that he’s struggling to fix. The Swiss goalkeeper is known for positioning himself a few more steps off of his line than he should, so much so that both Kimmich and Bayern teammate Thomas Müller admitted to specifically targeting Bürki with chip shots.
The ‘weak wrists’ myth
Bürki didn’t just face criticism for his positioning; he was also scrutinized for failing to keep the shot out despite getting his hand to the ball.
If we look at a closeup of the moment Bürki makes contact with the shot, you can see that Bürki got most of his hand in front of the shot.
The general consensus is that if you get most of your body in front of a shot, you should be saving that shot. So, given that, it wasn’t a surprise to see Twitter become overflown with tweets about Bürki’s wrist strength.
After all, if he couldn’t keep out a chip shot despite getting most of his hand in front of the ball, surely that means he’s got weak wrists, eh?
But let’s address this for a second because the ‘weak wrists’ argument is a popular cliché we often hear, especially regarding Premier League goalkeepers Kepa Arrizabalaga and Jordan Pickford.
The truth is that this argument does not matter — at least, not as much as some people think it does. What we often attribute to ‘weak wrists’ is actually down to bad form or a bad technique.
Let’s take a look at Kepa, for example. As I mentioned, the Chelsea goalkeeper is often criticized for having ‘weak wrists’. But as fellow goalkeeper analyst John Harrison (highly recommend following him) pointed out recently, it’s an issue in Kepa’s form, not a lack of strength in his wrists, that is behind a lot of the easy goals the Spaniard concedes.
An arm swing isn’t necessarily a bad thing; many of the world’s top goalkeepers, including Bayern’s Manuel Neuer, use exaggerated arm swings to help build force in their arms and dives and deflect strong shots away.
But the problem with Kepa is that he often mistimes these arm swings — he often swings his arms too slowly or too late — and that results in him not getting enough of a push on a shot to deflect it away.
When Kepa does time his arm swing correctly though, you can see that he can get a good parry on a strong attempt, such as in the below save on a shot from Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović.
Did Kepa’s wrists suddenly get stronger in this play? No, but his form was timed perfectly, and that helped Kepa get a strong hand in front of the attempt.
But even if you get your form and your technique spot-on, other factors, such as the part of the hand the shot strikes, can impact whether you stop the shot or not. You can do everything right — time your push-off perfectly, extend your body at an appropriate angle, etc. — but if the shot hits you on a specific part of your hand, you could be at risk of conceding.
As an example, let’s look at another recent Bundesliga game. On Saturday, Borussia Mönchengladbach lost 3-1 in a crucial match against fellow top-five club Bayer Leverkusen.
One of Leverkusen’s goals came via the penalty spot. Kai Havertz bagged his second of the game through the spot-kick, though Mönchengladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer got a hand to the shot.
Some people questioned why Sommer couldn’t keep it out, given he got his hand to the penalty. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the shot struck Sommer around the thumb and wrist area of his right hand.
The thumb/wrist area is not an area of the hand that offers much in terms of controlling where a shot gets deflected away. It’s a small part of the hand that isn’t much of a barrier, and due to its structure, the wrist doesn’t give a goalkeeper much rebound control compared to the palm or the fingers.
This is why Sommer, despite getting his hand in front of the penalty, couldn’t get a good parry on it. Had the ball struck him closer to the centre of his hand, I don’t think that penalty goes in.
Now, am I saying all wrists are created equal? That wrist strength is a complete non-factor in any goal scored? No. Obviously, some goalkeepers have stronger wrists than others, in the same way that some goalkeepers have stronger biceps than others.
But what I am saying is that it has very little impact on a goalkeeper’s ability to save or concede a shot, and more often than not it’s a sign of a goalkeeper’s technique or form rather than his or her own strength. Good technique and form will make the weakest wrists parry shots away like they’re made of concrete, while bad technique and form will make the strongest wrists flap like a flag in the wind.
Using the top hand and getting a stronger push-off
Bringing this back to Bürki, what could he have done better technique-wise that might’ve increased his chances of saving this attempt? Two things; the hand he used to save the shot and the extension of his leg during push-off.
Firstly, if we look back at the replay, Bürki attempts to stop this very high shot with his right hand. The ball is going to his right side, so it seems logical for the Swiss goalkeeper to use his right hand to save it.
The problem with using your right hand in this scenario is that it’s difficult to get a lot of power behind your parry. Because your body is on its side as you dive to your right, your right arm becomes positioned at the bottom of your body. So, in order to raise it up to a high shot, you have to stretch your body to allow your right arm to push upwards.
This is an uncomfortable position to be in, and it forces you to fight gravity in order to get a touch on the ball. It’s hard to generate a lot of force or power on this kind of a save attempt, and it also limits how much of an extension you can get behind your save.
That’s why, despite getting most of his hand in front of the ball, Bürki barely made a dent in the shot’s trajectory.
In my opinion, what Bürki should’ve done is his used his other hand — his left hand — to stop this attempt. Because his left hand would’ve been at the top of his body during his dive, Bürki would not have to fight gravity and contort the bottom part of his upper body upward to reach this ball. Furthermore, he’d have generated enough power to tip the ball away given he’d be swinging at the ball without gravity fighting back against him.
As an example, take a look at this save by Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas during the 2014 World Cup. As Diego Forlán’s shot deflects into an arching motion, Navas is forced to track back and tip the ball away acrobatically. But notice how he uses his top hand — this time his right hand — as opposed to his bottom hand? This decision allows Navas to get a full extension behind his dive and generate enough power to tip it over the bar.
Had Navas elected to use his bottom hand like Bürki, he likely would’ve conceded a similar goal. And had Bürki followed in the footsteps of his Costa Rican counterpart, he likely would’ve stopped Kimmich’s shot from finding the back of the net.
What also hinders Bürki’s diving power is his push-off. A strong push-off helps generate power and strength in a dive, which helps a goalkeeper parry a shot away.
But Bürki pushed off using a leg that was almost completely extended, and you can’t get much force into a dive from a near-extended push-off.
Think of it like this: If you have a spring and you want that spring to jump as high into the air as possible, you’d push the spring down as much as you can. This generates a force in the spring which allows it to get a strong push-off into the air.
What you wouldn’t do is compress the spring slightly to the point where it still retains its normal shape. This is because if you only push down on it a bit, it can’t generate a lot of force and thus get a strong launch. Sure, it might get some airtime, but the jump would be much weaker in comparison to the jump of a spring that’s fully compressed.
The same applies to human legs. If you want to get a good, strong jump, you’ll crouch so that your knees are fully bent. This would assist in your lift-off as you’d generate a lot of power and force behind your jump.
What you wouldn’t do is jump from your standing position with your knees fully extended because this doesn’t allow you to get much, if any, airtime.
Of course, doing the former takes longer than the latter, and as I mentioned above, time and not wasting time is very important to a goalkeeper. So, what goalkeepers will do when they’re in their set position is they’ll often keep their knees slightly bent so that they’d be ready for action, and then when a shot comes, they’ll take a power step to build up force in their dive and give themself a better launch.
This is one of the areas Bürki erred on. Although he was able to get good airtime behind his dive, his push-off from an extended leg did not result in much force, so he didn’t generate enough strength in his dive to parry the ball away.
Had Bürki taken a better power step with a more bent knee, he’d have been able to generate more force in his dive which would’ve resulted in a stronger parry.
These two factors — his hand choice and his push-off — resulted in a weak parry attempt from Bürki. Had he gone with his left, top hand and gotten a better push-off using a more bent knee, he likely would’ve generated more power behind his dive and stopped this attempt.
Not only has this loss hindered Borussia Dortmund’s chances of winning their first Bundesliga title since 2012, but it might’ve also cost the Black and Yellow Bees their spot in the top two.
Dortmund remain in second place following the conclusion of the latest matchday, but they’re now just two points above third-placed RB Leipzig and only three points above fourth-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach. And while they’ve already beaten Mönchengladbach twice this season, they still have one more meeting with RB Leipzig; on the second-last matchday of the season in the latter’s home stadium.
It’s unfortunate for Bürki that, if Dortmund fall out of the top two, he’ll likely be blamed for the slip. The Swiss goalkeeper was having a pretty decent season up until this point — his 10 clean sheets are the second-most in the Bundesliga.
Unfortunately, due to a moment of poor positioning and questionable hand-use, Bürki’s good work will likely be overlooked.