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Aug 12, 2014

Time for Gotze to pay Bayern back

Bayern Munich head coach Pep Guardiola insists his side are having to deal with a threadbare squad for the encounter.

Control, turn, volley. Control, turn, volley. Control. Turn. Volley.

Mario Gotze's winning goal versus Argentina in the World Cup final will echo in eternity because of its relevance, its beauty and, last but not least, its inherent, unassailable logic. That moment didn't just provide the perfect end to a thrilling tournament, but a fitting full stop to the German football story that had begun a decade earlier. It marked the planned outcome of a highly determined, progressive and expensive youth development program specifically designed to create players who could create such goals. "It's the technique, stupid," Martin Mazur of Argentine football publication El Grafico wrote in his postmatch piece from Rio de Janeiro.

Gotze's goal also served a second, much more personal purpose: It was a timely reminder that Gotze is a pretty special footballer.

It's been easy to forget just how good the 22-year-old is or, more precisely, how good he can be. His controversial 37 million euro move to Bayern Munich seemed to have arrested his development last season. Far from developing into a German Lionel Messi, a player worthy of his Gotzinho nickname, he was a peripheral figure during Pep Guardiola's first season in charge at the Allianz Arena. Ten goals and eight assists were not a mean return, but the Catalan coach rarely trusted him in the big games. Gotze never managed to move beyond being an incredibly well-paid supporting actor.

Will winning the World Cup inspire Mario Gotze to fresh heights in 2014-15?
Will winning the World Cup inspire Mario Gotze to fresh heights in 2014-15?

Dortmund-based football reporters even professed their shock at Gotze's apparent regression during the World Cup. He looked like a shadow of the player they had so admired in the past. Gotze claimed that the stats showed that he actually played well in Brazil, but doing many small things right was not a good substitute for having a real impact and making games truly his own.

To make matters worse, he came across like a player who had become a little too big for his own boots in a short space of time. He treated journalists with indifference bordering on disdain during the tournament; they soon responded in kind. After the 2-1 win in the last 16 against Algeria, Gotze walked through the mixed zone with his gaze fixed to the roof, ready to ignore all requests for a statement, but no requests were forthcoming. Nobody wanted to talk to him.

Those who know him best, like former German press officer Harald Stenger, insist that Gotze is a fundamentally decent boy who perhaps finds it hard to deal with criticism and goes into his shell by way of defence.

Maybe he's been unsettled by the much harsher spotlight at Bayern compared with the relative freedom to express himself he enjoyed at Signal Iduna Park. The amount of hate that came his way (and that of his father, a university professor) from disgruntled Borussia fans after his move down south must have hurt, too. "Some of it went too far," he recalled last week. At the height of the uproar in April 2013, his Facebook page was defaced by so many insults that the commentary function needed to be blocked.

Gotze has struggled to become a regular starter at Bayern so far. He can afford to struggle no more.
Gotze has struggled to become a regular starter at Bayern so far. He can afford to struggle no more.

Bayern, too, paid a hefty prize, the 37 million euro transfer fee aside. The hostile takeover of one of Dortmund's icons cast the Bavarians in a very ruthless light and didn't win them many new friends. (To be clear, they don't mind.)

The Toni Kroos saga also showed the dangerous knock-on effect of getting Gotze in at all costs. Kroos, who is represented by the same agency, was unhappy to be on only a third of Götze's 12 million euro per season. Bayern felt that they couldn't afford to bump Kroos up to the same level, for fear of inflationary pressure inside the dressing room, but the genie is out of the bottle now.

Also, the Gotze deal was exactly the sort of transfer that former Bayern president Uli Hoeness, currently in jail for tax evasion, used to belittle other European clubs for. They overpaid for a talent, hurting both their existing wage structure as well as possibly the player himself in the process. When you make top-level money as a 22-year-old, where is the motivation to work harder to get to the next level? Unflattering whispers about Gotze's penchant for the dessert buffet at Bayern away games painted a pretty damning picture.

Gotze will forever be "our World Cup hero" (Bild) but Bayern and Joachim Low must hope that his goal in Rio de Janeiro will rekindle his passion, not dampen it further. To an extent, he's won both Guardiola and the board over already, before the start of the season. Bayern's reluctance to buy another high-profile attacking midfielder can be read as a vote of confidence for him. Now he needs to reciprocate.

Gotze was good vs. former club Dortmund last season but that's not enough.
Gotze was good vs. former club Dortmund last season but that's not enough.

He could start by enraging Dortmund supporters further in the Super Cup at Signal Iduna Park on Wednesday evening. Guardiola is unlikely to play him from the beginning -- Gotze's only just returned from a lengthy holiday -- but he could come on in the second half, just as he did in his first return to his former club last November, when his 56th-minute goal broke the deadlock and paved the way for an emphatic 3-0 win by the Reds. In the long run, however, the occasional telling intervention late on in a match won't be enough.

- Daniel Busch: Tension builds ahead of Super Cup clash

"He has to step on the gas in his second season," club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge demanded in no uncertain terms last week. "I am convinced that he's aware what's expected of him, and that he will deliver. He will now fully justify the confidence we have in him. He will become a great player at Bayern, a really great one."

This was not a prognosis nor a wish. This was meant as an order. Gotze must become the player Bayern thought they had signed 14 months ago.

Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is author of Englischer Fussball.

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