Mario Gotze struggled to make sense of a difficult, disappointing night for Borussia Dortmund. On the one hand, a 1-1 home draw with APOEL of Nicosia was nothing less than a huge embarrassment and sporting disaster. “We have two points after four games in the Champions League,” the BVB midfielder told reporters at the Signal Iduna Park on Wednesday. “There’s no point in putting a nice gloss on that. That’s not the level we aspire to.”
At the same time, Peter Bosz’s team had created more than enough chances from their 30 attempts to win the match quite comfortably.
“If we score the second goal in the second half, things look entirely different,” Gotze claimed, not unreasonably. Dortmund’s finishing was off, rather than the entirety of their football.
By and large, the system worked rather well, but the Germany midfielder was wise not to stress that point that much. The best explanations only sound like lame excuses when the result is this awful and this momentous. On current form (one win in six games), Dortmund will have nothing at all to play for by the time Christmas comes around. Not even the Europa League.
“It’s a crisis,” said captain Marcel Schmelzer before quickly correcting himself and downgrading his assessment to “a very tricky spell.” Either way, the timing for Saturday’s Bundesliga showdown with a rejuvenated Bayern Munich does not seem ideal from a Black-and-Yellow point of view.
That said, it was possible to excavate a few grains of optimism from beneath that mountain of negativity. In his first start of the season, Portugal left-back Raphael Guerreiro had a fine game and scored a well-worked goal. His inclusion adds genuine pace and creativity to Dortmund’s left flank as well as some much-needed solidity at the back. And there was a second, more unlikely contributor to much of the things Borussia did well against the side from Cyprus: Gotze.
Slowly and quietly, the 25-year-old has come back to the fore in a central midfield role. Even he’s not quite “100 percent” back to his physical best after a seven-month lay-off in the wake of metabolic disorder as he himself claimed the other day, his contribution (four assists in 11 games) has been sizeable. Gotze’s influence in recent weeks has been underrated due to Dortmund’s poor results.
Gotze credited his team’s “trust” in him for his reemergence and now feels as if he can “take on responsibility” on the pitch. A look at his playing time under Bosz, who clearly appreciates his game, shows that he’s certainly on the right track. The draw with APOEL made it his fifth 90-minute performance in a competitive game in the space of 17 days. He was only rested in the 5-0 DFB Pokal away win to third-division 1. FC Magdeburg, where Bosz gave many of his regulars a night off.
By Gotze’s standards, that’s an extraordinary run. You have to go back to the last few weeks of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons under Pep Guardiola at Bayern to find similarly consistent levels of involvement. In those two spells, however, he was notably not a starter in the key Champions League matches and only featured in irrelevant Bundesliga games after the Bavarians had secured the league title. When it mattered, Guardiola didn’t really trust him to produce and injuries further hampered his progress at the Allianz Arena.
The same, perhaps surprisingly, was true during his first spell at Dortmund. For all the anguish that Jurgen Klopp and the club felt about Gotze’s defection south to Bayern in the summer of 2013, he hadn’t been a regular in the starting XI at the time due to a series of ailments. The last and only time he played as many consecutive full-time games in a yellow shirt was way back in March 2011, when he was still an 18-year-old prodigy and tipped to one day become “the German Lionel Messi.” Since then, his career has seen a series of false dawns and set-backs, with the much-mooted step up to the next level never quite happening.
A few days ago, Germany manager Joachim Low expressed the hope that the scorer of the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final would recover his form in time for the trip to Russia next year. Low is famously loyal to his players, sometimes too much so. In Gotze’s case, though, a wait-and-see approach is the only viable option. With every decent game, the attacking midfielder looks more like his old self but he’s clearly got some way to go before everybody believes he’s indeed back to his considerable best.
For Gotze’s sake, Low must cross his fingers that Bosz will be allowed to further the player’s rehabilitation at the top level over the next few months. There’s more at stake than the Dortmund manager’s future on Saturday night.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC’s German football expert. Follow: @honigstein