Injuries, frustration yet still promise: What's next for Mario Gotze?
A few were critical. Some laughed. Others were hopeful a reunion would bring back his best. But most football fans were optimistic regarding Mario Gotze's return to boyhood club Borussia Dortmund for £21.7m two seasons ago. Why would they not? Heralded as one of the world's best young prospects before his surprise switch to close rivals Bayern in 2013, the world was his oyster. He would soon be a World Cup hero with the extra-time finish to sink Argentina and crown Germany world champions in Brazil.
Time heals all wounds, which was especially important at the Westfalenstadion after such an acrimonious exit. BVB's fanbase had loved watching the fresh-faced midfielder at his creative best.
Today, three years later and at 24, I look at that decision in a different light. I can understand many fans could not accept my decision, I wouldn't reach it today either.
Mario vowed to prove himself once more, knowing full well not all Dortmund supporters were prepared to welcome him with open arms. Questions over ability were never previously a problem, though persistent injuries in Bavaria under Pep Guardiola were. They clearly took a toll on his body. The ability to perform well on a consistent basis amid Pep's high expectations were simply too much to ask. His development stalled.
The same can now be said about his second spell at BVB. After the club withdrew him from training indefinitely last year, following the discovery he has a "metabolic disorder" which contributes to muscle weakness, as well as fatigue and weight gain. The first thought in Manchester United fans' minds is probably Luke Shaw, but Gotze had unfinished business even if not all stories have happy endings.
Pulisic parallels, looking forward
He has scored four goals and created nine more in 48 appearances over the past two years. To better emphasise just how much football he has missed this season alone, Christian Pulisic scored five goals and created seven assists across 42 appearances in 2017/18. Pulisic is 19 and a hot attacking prospect with multiple European sides tracking his progress. There are parallels between the two. The young American is rising at a rate and trajectory Gotze had once travelled.
Dortmund will be eager to improve upon an underwhelming campaign on all fronts. A Champions League group stage exit followed by a surprise Europa League collapse against Red Bull Salzburg is sub-par for the club. Two wins from their last seven league matches meant they only scraped the final Champions League qualification spot on goal difference.
The point here is, BVB cannot afford to stagnate while their rivals strengthen. With that in mind and competition fierce at the Signal Iduna Park, Gotze's inclusion in the side as a key player is important. He has a big decision to make.
Having recovered from a ruptured cruciate ligament injury which sidelined him for nine months, Marco Reus was thrust straight back into the action. He made 11 Bundesliga appearances to finish the campaign before Germany's World Cup campaign began this past weekend. He started and played at least 70 minutes in every fixture.
The same cannot be said from Gotze's perspective. His presence in the side is often uncertain. Will he start, make a cameo or watch from the sidelines throughout? There's no promise nor expectation he can play regularly.
It seems somewhat typical that while Reus was relentless in his attempts to avoid a shock opening game 1-0 defeat by Mexico in Group F, Mario was a frustrated viewer from afar, unable to help his erstwhile teammates.
So, what's next?
Recent reports again link Götze with a Premier League move. There are a whole host of interested clubs. North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham are said to front the queue, though it's unclear whether the player is prepared to move abroad and challenge himself outside home comforts.
Everton and Europa League finalists Marseille are also said to be tracking his progress. Dortmund is not out of the question either.
His World Cup snub is not a defining one. Provided he plays regularly and impresses, there's no reason why Joachim Low won't recall the playmaker.
Julian Draxler's comments last month, urging compatriots to play abroad if granted an opportunity to do so, speak volumes.
"It is only an advantage if you play abroad. There is a new language, environment, new mentality. You have to overcome big challenges and I can understand [those] who want to, I can only advise them to do it. Everyone has their experiences playing abroad, you get to learn from different coaches from different countries, systems and all of these experiences can then be integrated into the national team."
Perhaps that move should not be to England. Plenty that can go wrong with a brittle body from the tough, physical opposition, high-pressure situations and increased scope for criticism too with a wider audience.
Lucien Favre, who managed to get the best from Mario Balotelli during a successful two-year spell at Nice, is Dortmund's incoming manager. He will be their fourth in 13 months. But should he grant Mario the freedom to play the number ten role, it could suit him perfectly.
Whatever Gotze decides to do, now's the time to knuckle down and turn flashes of individual brilliance into consistency at the highest level. As a wunderkind, he showed his limitless potential. Now, some luck must go his way.