Mario Götze and a great career hanging in the balance

Mario Götze and a great career hanging in the balance

ANDRÉ SCHÜRRLE EMBARKED ON A POWERFUL, driving run down the left wing, and lifted a hopeful ball towards the six-yard box, picking out the awaiting Mario Götze. The substitute immaculately controlled the ball on his chest, before sweetly volleying the ball into the far corner via his left-foot past a hapless Sergio Romero.

With less than eight minutes of extra-time remaining in the 2014 World Cup final, Götze had ended a relatively underwhelming stalemate with a moment of pure quality, and scored the winner on the most prestigious stage of them all. “Prove that you are better than Messi. You can decide the match today,” Germany coach Joachim Löw had told him before extra-time commenced.

It seemed fitting that it was the Dortmund youngster’s goal that led to the addition of a fourth star on the Germany crest. The nation had embarked on a progressive, youth-centric philosophy in an attempt to rectify the failings of previous teams, and it had culminated with one of the country’s most highly-rated talents superbly dispatching the winner in the World Cup final, and with commendable composure.

When the famous trophy had been lifted, Götze was revered, adored by German fans, as any player would be. There was a sense that he was a symbol of the next wave of talent, perhaps the man to inspire future national teams to further success, and thus he was immediately placed on a pedestal with an unenviable level of expectation and pressure.

Götze had made the €37 million switch from Dortmund to Bayern Munich a year prior to the World Cup, becoming the most expensive German player of all-time at the age of just 21. While that did nothing to subdue the anticipation surrounding a player that had proved so pivotal in Jürgen Klopp’s irrepressible and indefatigable Dortmund side, it was a move that many had expected and seemed one which made perfect sense. “He is a Pep Guardiola favourite,” Klopp said when the transfer had been confirmed.

As it turned out, the feeling was mutual. Götze was indeed an admirer of Guardiola, who had just arrived at Bayern after unprecedented success with Barcelona. It appeared to be a match made in heaven, at least in terms of styles.

His first season with the Bavarian club was promising, if somewhat understated, and there was a general sense that it was an acceptable beginning to his career with Die Roten. Such was the strength of Guardiola’s squad, the variety of options at his disposal, and the learning process that would be required on the part of all of the players to fully understand his methods, it was understandable that Götze was not perhaps as integral amongst the abundance of talent than he was at Dortmund. Nonetheless, he had appeared 45 times in all competitions and scored a reasonable 15 goals.

In a way, though, throughout his three years at Bayern, Götze was restricted by the sheer quality of the attacking players around him. In his first season, Guardiola favoured a 4-3-3 formation, leaving Götze, predominantly best utilised as a number 10, often on the periphery, or played in areas in which his influence on the game was limited. That’s not to say that the Catalan coach was ever content with not fulfilling the potential of the player at his disposal.

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Guardiola had signed Thiago from Barcelona alongside Götze to add another diminutive manipulator of the ball to his already affluent squad. “I have to fit Götze and Thiago into our game,” he said, quoted by Martí Perarnau in his book Pep Confidential. “It’s going to be tough and I don’t know how to go about it yet, but it has got to be done. Götze and Thiago are key.”

It was a dilemma that continued to plague Guardiola until the end of his tenure, as tapping the full potential of Götze proved to be continuously elusive and difficult to achieve. Even Joachim Löw had a similar issue with the national team. As an outsider looking in, it may have seemed that the 2014 World Cup was as near to perfection as a tournament can be for a young player, but in reality it had been largely underwhelming (other than the final heroics of course). He started just three games in total, and from the last-16 to the semi-final, featured in just 21 minutes. That tournament was almost a microcosm of Götze’s time at Bayern. He demonstrated flashes of genuine brilliance, accompanied by elements of inconsistency.

At Bayern, he often found himself a victim of his own versatility. Capable, if not always entirely comfortable, of playing almost anywhere in attack, it was the lack of a guaranteed position that led to a reduction in opportunities. Still, during his first campaign with the club, he had shown more than enough to suggest that he could eventually become an essential part of Guardiola’s plans.

An excellent goal in a 3-0 win against his former club Dortmund in 2013 brought with it more proclamations that he was the ‘German Messi’. Having ghosted into an area of space on the edge of the box, he expertly controlled the ball with his left-foot, before manoeuvring his body to strike with the outside of his right-foot into the bottom corner.

His second season at Bayern, following on from the World Cup victory, bore much resemblance to his first. There were fleeting demonstrations of his ability with braces against SC Paderborn, Werder Bremen and Hamburger SV, as well a stunning long-range effort against Hoffenheim. But it’s clear by the names of the clubs aforementioned that Götze was most effective with the pressure off, in games that were generally routine victories. Rarely was he at the forefront of Bayern’s most crucial games during his time at the club, particularly in the Champions League. In all three of his seasons with the club, they were eliminated in the semi-final of Europe’s top competition – he started in none of them.

The second half of the 2014-15 season was when Götze began to attract some criticism for what some perceived to be a work shy attitude and an unwillingness to truly fulfil his clear potential. The likes of legendary German midfielder Günter Netzer were vocal in calling for an improvement, as were much of the media and Bayern fans. Really, though, Götze suffered under the crippling weight of almost unrealistic expectation brought about often by moments of success taken in isolation.

Conversely, it could be said that his general game was underrated in a way, due to what he had shown himself capable of. His inclusion as one of the 23 players nominated for the 2014 Ballon d’Or was probably the best example that it was expected that he should and would become one of the world’s best players.

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Götze’s final season at Bayern was his most testing, and ultimately one which spelt the end of his time with Germany’s most successful club. Injuries and a lack of form, as well as an even richer vein of talent for Pep Guardiola to choose from, meant that he was limited to just 14 league appearances. It was that season, however, which contained one of Götze’s most impressive performances in a Bayern shirt, although it was in a game in which one man emphatically stole the headlines.

In a breathless, exhilarating eight minutes and 57 seconds of football, Robert Lewandowski found the net an incredible five times, stunning everyone at the Allianz Arena. But it was Götze who caught the eye of Guardiola. The German was the catalyst for the Polish striker’s magnificence, assisting twice from the right hand side, and involved in all of the goals in some degree as Lewandowski produced one of the most astonishing forward displays in the game’s history. As for Götze, it was an outstanding performance from a player capable of producing outstanding football, but all too sporadically.

Guardiola is a coach who prides himself on his ability to develop players’ understanding and knowledge of the game, and has a positive and beneficial impact on their careers. He has been successful many times, developing players such as Jérôme Boateng, Manuel Neuer and Philipp Lahm into players far more diverse and capable than they had previously been. But in the case of Götze, there was something missing, something that Guardiola worked tirelessly to discover.

He dedicated hours of video analyses, tactical talks, and one-to-one discussions with Götze, but there seemed to be no way he could fully make use of his mercurial talents. It’s unclear as to whether it was a lack of willingness to learn on the part of the player, or simply that Guardiola’s methods didn’t suit him. The former Barcelona coach didn’t give up, though, which is testament to his unerring dedication towards helping players advance under his tutorship.

“I have a lot of respect for Mario and for his career so far,” Guardiola said shortly before leaving Bayern last year. “I know what he can do. My opinion about him does not change because of one good or bad game. Mario can play in any formation. I want the best for Mario. He can still succeed at Bayern, and he is a great guy. He deserves the best. Mario is one of the most professional players I have ever met in my career. I have never spoken badly about him because he never gives me any reason to do so. He is hugely professional.”

Despite Guardiola’s words of encouragement, the coach that replaced him, Carlo Ancelotti, was quick to make clear to Götze that he could not expect to be a first team regular. At first he vowed to attempt to work his way into the Italian’s plans, although he eventually made the decision to rejoin former club Dortmund in the summer in the hope that he could reach the level he had hinted at when playing for them as a teenager. Returning to the club at which he made his name, he said of his choice to join Bayern: “Today, three years later and at 24, I look at that decision in a different light.”

There was hope that the move would spark new life into the attacking midfielder, although he has since only declined further into obscurity, plagued by an apparent lack of confidence and niggling injuries. BVB coach Thomas Tuchel has recently backed Götze to prove his worth if he can show “patience and diligence”, but now 24-years-old, it’s quickly becoming more likely that he will ultimately prove to be another disappointing story of a player unable to fully manifest his true talent.

By Callum Rice-Coates  @callumrc96

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