October 24, 2017

Golly, It’s Great Seeing Mario Götze Star as Himself Again

Mario Götze returning to Dortmund was my feel good story last year. The return was prodigal, of course (how else does one cancel out “Verpiss dich Götze” banners?). However, much like Jesus’ parable, Götze’s return last season really was a new beginning of a new story. Unfortunately, in Götze’s case, this return story was unceremoniously cut short because of his battle with the rare muscle disorder and metabolic illness, myopathy, which causes fatigue and weight gain. The disorder knocked Götze out for the Rückrunde. In hindsight, the health disorder explained many odd things about Götze, like his Pummelfee nickname, his obsessive attempts to keep fit, and—especially!—his decreasing powers on the pitch, such as his speed-burst off the dribble. Suddenly, we weren’t even sure that Götze had a football career left anymore. So much for the prodigal return.

Götze’s aborted new beginning had become tragic; more specifically, his return had become laden with tragic irony: here was Germany’s “once-in-a-generation talent” stricken with a disorder that could kill his football career.

Suddenly, Götze’s magical 2011-12 and 2012-13 Dortmund seasons appeared simultaneously as a now-vanished precious gift of a frail footballing genius and as a cruel cosmic joke, signalling that we hadn’t even really appreciated what Götze had already given us in our expectations to see what his future would bring. It’s as if the Jesus’ parable ends with the prodigal son eating some bad meat at his father’s “welcome home” feast and dying of horrific abdominal pains. Sure, it’s an ending, but not an ending that tells enough about the son’s return.

Same with Götze.

Except the story has another twist. Götze returned to the pitch for Dortmund again. After playing in the preseason, he debuted on the August 20th match against VfL Wolfburg, playing a lovely match. Thus, Götze + health crew seemingly have figured out the best diet, fitness, and other routines for the once-super Mario. Did you expect this twist? I think I did probably because of a vague and naive background sense that modern medicine just figures these things out. But I shouldn’t have taken this latest return for granted—haven’t we already learned this lesson with Götze? Which brings me to BVB’s destruction of Borussia Mōnchengladbach on Saturday’s late match.

After seeing Götze play a sumptuous game against Gladbach, I’ve promised that I’m not taking him granted anymore; I’ll appreciate whatever gifts he has left to give us needy football viewers. Saturday’s game set a new standard for the post-prodigal Götze. More than any post-return match, I’d argue, Götze was highly involved in all aspects of BVB’s play to a degree we haven’t seen yet. His quantity of touches topped 100, while his influence stretched beyond his green heatmap blob:

 

Götze’s heatmap versus Gladbach on MD 5. Source: WhoScored.com.

Bosz sent Götze to the right midfield. Although the heatmap might indicate otherwise, Götze wasn’t a winger on Saturday. Notice that his main sphere of influence just pushed up to the final 3rd, while his sphere of influence stretched toward the center circle, then strafed across the final 3rd in a blue band. This positioning seems to suit the post-prodigal Götze very well. First, it indicates the different role that Götze now plays for BVB, aiding in build-up play and ball distribution more frequently than in the past. Second, it indicates that Götze is still close enough to the final 3rd to create danger for opponents with key passes, quick one-two passing combinations, or pivoting with the ball to make a dangerous pass through the final 3rd. This new role has Götze relying less on bursts of speed, which he doesn’t seem to have anymore, and more on intelligence, guile, and dangerous link-up play. And I love it.

Saturday’s Gladbach match hints at a sort of reinvention for Götze.

Götze’s passing work against Gladbach was mostly of short vectors and mostly from the right side, naturally:

Götze’s passing work vs. Gladbach on MD5. Source: Squawka.com.

Yes, Götze had a couple key passes and what some sources credit as an assist on Saturday, but what I saw him doing was playing something like “the pass before the key pass.” Usually, he received the ball from a centerback (especially Sokratis), then routed the ball onward to Pulisic. That, Götze is the guy who is setting up final 3rd play, or, for us Americans, Götze is the feeder of the Pulisic. In this role, Götze was great at keeping the ball away from defenders riding his back, or great in pivoting toward a teammate—my favorite Ilkay Gündogan skill of all time!—or in putting just the right weight on a delicate short pass into the final 3rd. @11tegen11’s passing network map from Saturday, illustrates Götze’s new nodal role:

Götze’s within BVB’s passing network on MD5. Source: @tegen11tegen on Twitter.

This passing network excites me, because it shows me what’s possible for BVB with a healthy Götze and Weigl playing at the same time. Instead of being a faintly useful substitute, Götze can clearly become a (the?) crucial link between build-up and attack. This new incarnation of Götze seems to offer the suitable balance of midfield passing awareness with final 3rd link-up menace. A more mature role for Götze, surely.

So far, this new role for Götze is evident positionally on Götze’s season-whole pitch actions map:

Götze’s positioning this season in all matches so far. Source: InStat Football.

What I see in this map, to repeat myself, is Götze marking his new territory as BVB’s transitional node from build-up to attack. Moreover, you can see that he’s not limited to the right side, but obviously can range across this entire territory in a broad band. So if Götze’s health remains intact, I can’t help but get excited about his increasing importance for BVB, albeit not in the way we’re accustomed to Götze being important from those pre-prodigal years. In past seasons, Götze was more involved in play closer to the goal mouth, as he himself also threatened opponents as a goal-scorer. Of course, Götze still is shooting the ball and getting close to the goal, but just not nearly as much as he used to. However, this new role, this reinvention of sorts, doesn’t mean that Götze is (or will be) any less valuable to BVB. I’d argue he’s become more valuable, especially because he seems more capable of playing deeper down the pitch, like, say, a central midfielder. Besides, Julian Weigl’s BVB days are surely numbered given his incredible potential to dictate matches from the center, so BVB will need the likes of Götze to assume some of the Weigl workload in future seasons. Thank god lil Mario is only 25. If only he stays healthy. If only, if only.

Can you see why I’m taking anything for granted with Götze anymore?

I get the sense that we’re watching something interesting unfolding this season with Götze.

I have real feelings for very few footballers. Götze is an exception. I love him more because of his Bayern disaster and because of his health disaster. His prodigality gives him depth and, as with Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa, the chance to learn to love a player who returns. In the age of “Modern Football,” us fans don’t often get the luxury of loving players, if our first allegiances are to love clubs. The players come and go—not come and go and return, except for a few special cases. And for whatever reason, BVB has three such cases on the roster right now. No wonder many of us BVBers use the verb love when talking about our club.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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