Criticised Gotze starting to prove himself at Bayern Munich
How many goals did Mario Gotze score for Bayern Munich last season? Even die-hard fans of the Bavarians will probably struggle to come up with an immediate answer.
They might be surprised to learn that the 37 million-euro recruit from Borussia Dortmund netted 10 times in 27 league games, once in the DFB Pokal and three times in the Champions League. Add one more from the World Club Championship against Guangzhou Evergrande, and the total comes to a very respectable 15 in 44 appearances.
One goal in three games is a decent ratio for a player whose chances have been limited in a team that had Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic at their disposal, a quartet that had just won the treble when Gotze joined in the summer of 2013. But the very reason it's so hard to remember Gotze's goals tells another, more pertinent story about his first campaign at the Allianz Arena: precious few of them have come in games that truly mattered for Bayern.
The Champions League best illustrates the point. Last year, Gotze was on target against minnows Viktoria Plzen in Die Roten's 5-0 win and against Manchester City in the final game of Group D, where both teams had already secured advancing to the knockout stages. His performances after the group stages were disappointing. A tired, uninspired Bayern were desperate for some individual magic but he missed the only chance they created away at Real Madrid in the first semifinal leg with a half-hearted toe poke.
In the Bundesliga, Bayern's dominance was such that there weren't many truly meaningful games, so that's not his fault. Gotze, in fairness, scored the hugely important opener against his former club Dortmund in the 3-0 November 2013 win, which helped his club set the tone for the rest of the season.
However, he was totally anonymous again in all three subsequent meetings with BVB: Bayern's 3-0 home defeat in April, their 2-0 win in the DFB Cup final and the 2-0 defeat at the Signal Iduna Park in the Super Cup in August. The home crowd booed him, four weeks after his decisive goal in the World Cup final, and quite a few traveling supporters might have been tempted to join in. "It's so sad to see what has become of him," one local football reporter commented.
Should Bayern have gone for Schalke 04's Julian Draxler instead? The officials at Sabener Strasse, the club's headquarters, wondered quietly. Others not only questioned his price tag but whether the wave of bad publicity the club encountered in relation to his transfer as well as the inflationary knock-on effect of wages were really worth it. And to cap it all off, Toni Kroos' departure to Madrid was -- to an extent -- rooted in him earning only a fourth of Gotze's wages, too.
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In light of such a charge sheet, Pep Guardiola might have been tempted to demand another big-name signing for the attacking midfield. Bayern mooted a bid for Juan Cuadrado, but the Fiorentina winger's 40 million-euro price tag was seen as excessive.
Angel Di Maria was being offered around Europe for 50 million euros before Manchester United bought him for a good deal more than that in late August, but again, the board deemed him too expensive. Dortmund's Marco Reus rebuffed all advances. Bayern ended up not buying anyone, but that was only a vote of confidence in Gotze by default.
This background explains why his two goals against SC Paderborn on Tuesday night were greeted as an important step forward. Granted, it was only new boys Paderborn, spirited underdogs who'd defied the odds to go to Munich as league leaders but were soon expertly filleted by a Bayern team eager to make amends after their 0-0 draw at Hamburg.
In the grand scheme of things, these three points are unlikely to make the difference either way come next May. But Gotze didn't just score, he also played well. As well as he has done since defecting south. Eagle-eyed observers are convinced he's lost a couple of kilos since the World Cup. He certainly seems to move a lot better. Gotze, it's easy to forget, was rated a once-in-a-generation talent for his ability to go past players at full pace. There were signs that he's reconnecting with that part of his game, due to a combination of quicker legs and a mind more at ease, probably.
Gotze took time to speak to the TV and press reporters after the game. Last season he had often shunned the limelight and acquired a reputation for being aloof as consequence. On Tuesday, however, he cut a very happy, relaxed figure. "You could see that we had fun playing football again," he said.
That was especially true of his own game.
"He moved well; we are happy with him," said club sporting director Matthias Sammer. He is not usually quick to praise players.
Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge pointedly added that these kind of performances were to be "expected" of Mario: "he cost a lot of money."
If that line hinted at some internal pressure on the 22-year-old to step up his game, there are also signs that his teammates are trying to help him settle in better. Thomas Muller was noticeably eager to include him in the celebrations with the supporters after the final whistle against Manchester City last week -- Gotze had played quite well in that game, too -- and the 25-year-old was again hugging him very tightly after he netted the first goal on Tuesday.
A few weeks ago, it was rumoured that Gotze felt a little lonely in Munich, that he was missing his old Dortmund friends. Only he will know whether that's true but in any case, the process of integration seems to be moving ahead.
Robert Lewandowski, the second standout performer against Paderborn, took 17 months to get to Munich after agreeing the deal in February 2013. Gotze has already been wearing Bayern's colours for nearly as long but he's only started arriving now.
He'll need more great games, more TLC from Muller, Guardiola et al. and more smiles on his face before he'll get close to fulfilling his potential. But the hugely encouraging news is that it has become apparent again just how immense that potential is. Many people in Bavaria and beyond had forgotten about that, along with his goal-scoring record.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.