Mario Götze had to bide his time, but the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner is playing a key role in Borussia Dortmund’s title charge. In the absence of injured skipper Marco Reus, however, he has become even more important to BVB manager Lucien Favre.
Without a win in five competitive matches, Dortmund needed leadership and character against Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday 23. Bayern Munich had beaten Hertha Berlin 1-0 a day previously, meaning that Favre’s side suddenly topped the Bundesliga on goal difference alone.
While plenty of players shone in their eventual 3-2 success, stand-in captain Götze led by example. The Germany attacker had already done so a few days before in the 0-0 draw with Nuremberg by registering more shots than ever before in a league game for his team (six).
The 26-year-old dropped into the Reus role behind striker Paco Alcacer for the Leverkusen match, and showed a similar determination to make the difference. The Dortmund number 10 covered 7.3 miles (11.8 kilometres - the third-highest total for the home side), made the most intensive runs (85), and also won 16 tackles (a tally bettered only by centre-back Abdou Diallo).
To cap it all, Götze also drilled home what proved the crucial third goal in what was the third home game in a row that he had got on the scoresheet.
Getting into Favre's good books
It has been a long road back for Götze, whose career had been cruelly hampered by illness and injury since October 2015. Like many of his teammates, he would have wondered what to expect when Favre took over last summer, and where he would fit into the Swiss coach’s plans.
“I didn’t have it so easy with him in the beginning,” Götze said recently. “It took a certain amount of time. But of course I had to go along with him and his philosophy, and what he wanted to see. That’s a process.”
A late goal in the 4-3 comeback win over Augsburg on Matchday 7, according to Götze, was the major turning point. It came on the attacking midfielder’s first league appearance of the season, and Favre seemed to trust that - while form can be fleeting - class is permanent.
One or two eyebrows may have been raised when the new Dortmund manager called on Götze to play in a false nine role for a big UEFA Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid in October. Dortmund hammered the UEFA Europa League champions 4-0, however, and Götze’s influence was a big factor. A few days later he reprised the role in a 2-2 draw with Hertha Berlin, again earning praise from Favre after making one of the goals.
“He played really well,” Favre said. “His movement is really good. He offers solutions, and has a real feel for the game. He runs and presses [the opposition] a lot.”
Back on track
The Hertha game was one of 10 league starts for Götze between late October and late February, with his experience and know-how becoming all the more important in the wake of Reus’ injury problems since the turn of the year.
In Dortmund’s final game before the winter break, against fellow high-flyers Borussia Mönchengladbach, Götze came off the bench early to grab two assists. The second was via a delightful ball across the six-yard box to set up the winning goal for Reus, as the home side claimed a precious 2-1 victory.
With Reus missing, Götze got another goal and an assist in the 3-3 draw with Hoffenheim, leading club CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke to add to the plaudits ahead of the meeting with Leverkusen.
“He has become more explosive again, and has the courage to go dribbling like he used to,” Watzke said.
“Mario is really on the right track,” he continued, before adding a prescient prediction. “He could score a few more goals.”
Götze netted again at the next available opportunity, brilliantly sweeping a first-time shot from the edge of the box past visiting keeper Lukas Hradecky for his fourth goal of the campaign.
Watch: Hear Götze's thoughts on being captain against Nuremberg
A key man
Dan-Axel Zagadou was also on target in the Leverkusen game, meaning that 18 of Dortmund’s 20 outfield players who have featured in the Bundesliga this season had scored at least once by Matchday 23. That statistic highlights the collective nature of Dortmund’s title push, but it’s also easy to understand why Götze’s continued contribution could be decisive if a youthful squad are to end up as German champions.
For a start, he knows the club inside out, having come through the youth ranks to make his Bundesliga debut, aged 17, in November 2009.
The former Bayern player is also a five-time Bundesliga winner already – with two titles coming with Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund in 2010/11 and 2011/12. Götze won’t turn 27 until June, but he is still the seventh-oldest player in Favre’s squad. He has over 200 Bundesliga games behind him – as well as over 50 goals and 50 assists in German top-flight matches alone.
Die Schwarzgelben are unbeaten in games the Germany international has scored in this season, and he now has more goals this term than in the past two campaigns combined.
No wonder, then, that Favre has placed so much faith in his number 10. Götze was named as captain for the first time for the trip to Nuremberg on Matchday 22, something he described as a “special honour.”
The man who scored the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final will happily hand over the armband to Reus on his return. Götze, though, has amassed an impressive four goals and four assists to date, so Favre will still be counting on the fast-improving attacker to help get Dortmund over the line in the title race.