The 2011-12 season was supposed to be Mario Goetze and Dortmund's year to shine on the grand stage of the Champions League. But just as BVB's hopes fizzled out in Europe, Goetze's breakout season became one to forget.
The then-19-year-old Goetze was plagued by injuries all season. It started in November 2011, when he limped off in a loss to Arsenal. After having his minutes limited before the winter break, he looked set to lead Dortmund's title run in the spring. It was not to be: Inflammation in his hip cartilage saw him miss nearly the entire second round of the campaign.
Goetze was fit in April but played for just 131 minutes over the final three games and missed the DFB-Pokal final. BVB were flying high; they won all but two games in the second round and frankly didn't need to risk the playmaker's fitness.
Euro 2012 was similarly frustrating for Goetze. Coming into the tournament with no momentum or form, he was given just 11 minutes to make an impression.
After a rigorous preseason, Goetze was back in form for Dortmund at the start of the current campaign. In fairness, he played well for most of the first round. But still, he lacked the magic in the final third that characterized his play before his injury. Even at 18, he had all the ideas and skill to be a phenomenon; he just needed to mature physically. In August and September he had the body but no longer the precision.
The last month or so has been a game-changer. It all started against Greuther Fuerth when he ran the Bavarians' defense ragged and was emphatically the man of the match. Days later, he scored and assisted two goals as BVB hammered Ajax in the Champions League, securing top spot in the so-called "Group of Death."
Since then, Goetze has been on a tear. In his last eight games in all competitions he's scored seven goals—including a critical equalizer against Bayern Munich—and assisted five more. He could hardly have ended the calendar year on a better note; in the DFB-Pokal last week, he netted a hat-trick that included a Ronaldinho-esque free kick that whizzed below the Hannover wall and nestled into the corner of the net.
With any young footballer, it's tough to forecast where and when development will end. Some players are otherworldly at 17, but see their progress halt prematurely and are surpassed by many at senior level. Some appear to hit their maximum, then find a new level at 22 or 23.
In Goetze's instance, there may have been some concern that he had wasted a critical time in his development on the sideline and that the player he was in August and September was the best he'd ever be.
Over the last month, however, he's turned over a new leaf: Goetze has consistently played at an extremely high level and shown a wide variety of skills: bursting through the middle and rounding the goalkeeper, cutting in from the left and firing from distance, crossing from the right, playing one-twos at the edge of the box, shooting from free-kicks...he's shown he has a full array of skills that can be applied on a week-in, week-out basis. He seems to get better with each game.
The winter break comes at an inconvenient time for Goetze, who is in the form of his life. He now has time to recharge as the telling part of the season approaches. Provided he avoids injury, the 20-year-old has every chance to continue at the level he's shown in the last month and even improve. He is, after all, "one of the greatest talents [Germany] have ever had," according to Matthias Sammer.
Dortmund won't win the Bundesliga this season. They've dropped so many points against lesser opponents that even if they were to win every game in the second half of the season, they may well not catch Bayern.
However, if he stays fit, Goetze can be the man to spearhead BVB's runs for glory in the Champions League and DFB-Pokal. So young, so talented, anything is possible. We're privileged to see it happen.