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Better Than Messi at Age 20: Why Gotze Is Ready to Be Guardiola's Next Protege

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Better Than Messi at Age 20: Why Gotze Is Ready to Be Guardiola's Next Protege
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Ever since he emerged as a first-team player at Dortmund in 2009, Mario Gotze has been commonly referred to as the "German Lionel Messi." At the time, it was too difficult to tell whether the then-17-year-old would indeed ever become a Ballon d'Or contender, but his talent was undeniable.

In the years that have followed, however, Gotze has developed a skill set markedly similar to that of the Argentine, and he has mirrored the Barcelona man's annual progress.

Both players made their senior debuts at age 17 before becoming regular starters and senior internationals at 18. And save for an injury-marred 2011-12 campaign that saw his minutes severely limited, Gotze has at every age thus far exceeded Messi in terms of appearances, the sum of goals and assists and the per-game ratio of goals and assists.

It's not just the raw statistics that make Gotze great; historically, he's been a big-game player. At 18, he gave two assists against Bayern in a 3-1 win for BVB in Munich. Months later, he scored the only goal of the match as his hometown club edged the Bavarian giants 1-0. And at 20, he's again netted against the German giants and has two goals and four assists in the Champions League.

By comparison, Messi got his first assist against Real Madrid as an 18-year-old, and his first goals against Los Blancos came in a hat-trick at 19. But, like Gotze, it wasn't until he turned 20 that Messi began to assert himself in the Champions League. In 2007-08, the Argentinian gave eight goals and one assist in Barca's run to the Champions League semifinals.

There are many reasons to compare Gotze and Messi, and these go well beyond scoring. To begin with, they both were born in the month of June, and thus the "same age" comparison is especially valid.

Gotze vs. Messi, Age-By-Age in All Club Competitions
Gotze at Age Appearances Goals Assists Goals and Assists per Game
18 41 8 16 0.59
19 27 7 8 0.56
20 (ongoing) 42 16 19 0.83
Messi at Age Appearances  Goals  Assists  Goals and Assists per Game 
18 23 7 4 0.48
19 34 15 2 0.50
20 40 18 17 0.83

Source: Transfermarkt.de

Both players started their careers on the right wing, but they are naturally suited to roles in the center. The German in his earlier years was somewhat more of a playmaker, but like Messi he has developed into a scorer. Gotze recently started for his country in the striker position and impressed with four goals in as many World Cup Qualifying matches.

The fact that Pep Guardiola chose Gotze to be his first signing at Bayern indicates that the incoming trainer will indeed make him his next Messi-like protege in the "false nine" position. And for good reason, given the BVB man's scintillating record as a 20-year-old.

In terms of physical qualities, Gotze and Messi are markedly similar. The German is two inches taller and a bit more muscular, but he shares the Argentine's relatively low center of gravity, great agility and explosive acceleration.

With the ball at his feet, Gotze is an unorthodox attacking player, much like Messi. The German, like the Argentine, always wants the ball and has the technical ability and footballing brain to play deep in midfield. Gotze averages 66 touches per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga and 41 passes, of which he has completed 85.8 percent.

Such numbers aren't far from those expected of a holding midfielder—and incidentally, an 18-year-old Gotze played a few games in defensive midfield during his debut season.

The primary physical and tactical difference between the two is that Gotze covers much more ground than Messi—around 50 percent more on average in the Champions League. One factor that has significantly contributed to the Barcelona man's consistency is that, due to limited responsibilities in terms of running without the ball, he's avoided injury and been fresh and physically fit for nearly every game.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
The factor that separates Messi from other talents is his consistent development.

Messi's minimal running effort is by design, a side-effect of his being used in the "false nine" position from late 2010 onward. At age 20, he still played on the wing and was required to defend. And like most every other football player, he missed games occasionally due to fatigue or injury.

Because he makes himself so available in defense and as a passing outlet deep in his own half, Gotze is currently more susceptible to fatigue. This will change under Guardiola, however, if the 20-year-old is deployed in a similar position as Messi.

Some may scoff at the comparison of Gotze to Messi, but a few years ago, a similar response came to those who dared to compare the latter to Diego Maradona. If Cristiano Ronaldo—a player whose contribution to any team consists purely of goals and a few assists—can be compared to Messi, then so can Gotze.

Time will tell whether Gotze will be able to continue to match Messi in the long term, but thus far, it's an absolutely valid comparison. What makes the Argentine so great is not how he performed at 19 or 20, but how he continued to improve every year until age 25.

The next season will be a very telling one for Gotze in his development as he becomes Guardiola's next false nine. This will be a greater responsibility than the youngster has ever seen, and it comes at a much earlier age than it did for Messi, who was 23 by the time he was first used in the role.

That season was monumental for the Barca man, who for the first time broke the 50-goal barrier. And it just might be for Gotze as well. The full extent of the Memmingen native's ability may yet be unknown, but one thing is for sure: In choosing to work with Guardiola, he has put himself in the best possible position to succeed.

 

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