After Round-of-16 finishes at the 2014 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2016, Switzerland are looking to go one better in Russia. After impressing in the group stages, Borussia Mönchengladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer will now be tasked with guarding their net against Sweden in the last 16.
Making a name for himself
What did Gladbach find so impressive to bring him in as Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s replacement in 2014? How did he win the No1 jersey for Die Nati over Borussia Dortmund’s Roman Bürki? And what kind of security does he bring to the Swiss back line? bundesliga.com has the scoop.
Throughout his career, Sommer has constantly had to prove himself to be a worthy successor to more established names - and has succeeded with resounding success. The first great goalkeeper whose shadow he had to step out of was Argentina’s Franco Costanzo at Basel. After a successful youth career for feeder club Concordia Basel and the Swiss giants’ U21 squad, Sommer was loaned out in 2007 to Vaduz, who play in the Swiss league pyramid despite being based in the capital of Liechtenstein.
In the Swiss second division, Sommer gained valuable experience, helping the club to promotion in his first season and two Liechtenstein Cup titles in his two campaigns there. His solid performances prompted Basel to cut his loan short in early 2009 after starter Constanzo suffered an injury. However, once the Argentinian recovered, Sommer was relegated to the bench and spent the next season on loan at Zurich rivals Grasshopper.
Upon Sommer’s return to Basel in 2010, Constanzo was still very much No1 as the club won the second of what would eventually become eight league titles on the bounce. However, the wheels were already in motion for a passing of the gloves and in the last game of the season Sommer replaced Constanzo in the 87th minute in a symbolic act for the St. Jakob-Park crowd.
Sommer followed that trust with a strong performance at the 2011 European Under-21 Championship, where Switzerland finished runners-up to Spain and he made the Team of the Tournament. His iron grip on the No1 jersey with the seemingly undefeatable Swiss champions led to a senior cap with Switzerland in 2012 and a call-up to the 2014 World Cup squad.
Return of the Foals
Diego Benaglio was their undisputed stopper throughout this period, with Sommer and Bürki vying to succeed the long-time Wolfsburg stalwart upon his international retirement after Brazil. By the time the EURO qualifiers rolled around in September, Sommer was confirmed as Switzerland’s first choice in goal. That summer also proved momentous for the keeper as Gladach sought his signature to replace Barcelona-bound ter Stegen.
His first season with the Foals was a resounding success. The club finished third in the standings in no small part thanks to an airtight backline that only conceded 26 goals, second only to champions Bayern Munich, who allowed 18 in Pep Guardiola’s last season in charge. Between Gladbach’s last Bundesliga title in 1976/77 and the 2014/15 season, a lapse of almost four decades, they’d only graced the Bundesliga podium three times, the last of them in 1986/87.
This also meant the club’s return to the Champions League, a competition they had not participated in since it was simply known as the European Cup in 1977/78. It was the highest point of a long-term project aimed at restoring the club’s golden past, when Jupp Heynckes’ goals helped them win five league titles, reach the European Cup final and become the only team in Germany capable of looking Bayern at eye-to-eye level throughout the seventies. And Sommer was a crucial part of their revival. So much so that Gladbach fans voted him their Player of the Season.
The Foals remained a force the following season, finishing fourth. Unfortunately for them, their collective performance has dropped in the last two campaigns and a return to European competition has proved elusive after successive ninth-place finishes. Despite the group slump, Sommer’s individual performance has been consistently impressive.
It’s no surprise that his best numbers date from the 2014/15 season, when he got to 83 per cent of all the shots he faced and collected 15 clean sheets, a new single-season club record. His season save rate dipped to 66 and 67 per cent respectively afterwards, but 2017/18 saw the Swiss keeper raise it to 73 per cent.
While he may not be the Bundesliga keeper with the highest block rate, he does have the league’s most secure hands as 59 per cent of his saves last season ended firmly in his hands, a percentage no other stopper in the league can boast. His presence in the box is also an asset for Gladbach with 49 crosses caught, an area where Sommer comes second only to Wolfsburg’s Koen Casteels.
Watch: Yann Sommer on loving Gladbach and his friendship with Roger Federer!
A Mid-Sommer night’s Russian dream?
After a strong performance in Brazil 2014, Die Nati were eliminated in the Round of 16 against eventual finalists Argentina only after an extra-time Angel Di Maria strike to make it 1-0, Switzerland have many reasons to be optimistic about their chances in 2018. Although they’ve been drawn into the lower bracket of the tournament, where they could face difficult rivals like Germany and England in the latter stages, their first match against Brazil showed they are anything but a pushover.
Despite there being nothing he could do to prevent a Philippe Coutinho scorcher that will surely be in the running for Goal of the Tournament, Sommer stopped close-range headers by Neymar and Roberto Firmino. Hoffenheim’s Steven Zuber equalised in the second half and Brazil’s jogo bonito proved ineffective from then on.
"I like Zuber as a player a lot," Sommer confided to Alexi Lalas' State of the Union podcast. "He’s really fast, technical. He can do a lot with the ball. He can surprise you, do something special. He can score goals. He’s a good, quiet guy."
Thanks to that goal, Switzerland can dream of going far at the World Cup, and Sommer cannot wait to show what he can do against more of the world's best. "I’ve played against the best players in the world already - Messi twice, Cristiano Ronaldo. I played against Neymar. I’m just happy to be there. I’m looking forward to playing against everybody," he said.
"When you’re a young boy, playing your first cup or next to your house, you always dreamed about a game like Brazil. I dreamed of it. The World Cup is a career highlight. I want to have success with this team."
With Sommer's safe hands, Switzerland are right on track. Sweden have been warned.
Jaime Duque Cevallos