When Bayern Munich make the 600-kilometre journey to North Rhine-Westphalia for Der Klassiker with Borussia Dortmund on Saturday afternoon, they will find a familiar face there to greet them in the shape of Mario Gotze.
The path between the Allianz Arena and Signal Iduna Park—and back—is well-trodden. Mats Hummels made the opposite journey to his former team-mate this summer. Add in Robert Lewandowski and Sebastian Rode and there are potentially four players who could line up against their former sides come kick-off.
Dortmund were the most recent club to deny the Bavarian giants the Bundesliga title, doing so in the 2011-12 season with a team that boasted Hummels, Gotze—in his first BVB spell—and Lewandowski.
However, Bayern's traditional rivals were the other Borussia, Monchengladbach—who won five titles to Bayern's four in the 1970s. Der Klassiker between Bayern and Dortmund is the most exciting fixture in Germany today, but the moniker should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Argentina's Superclasico is contested between River Plate and Boca Juniors. River have won the league title a record 36 times, while Boca boast the second-best haul with 31. El Clasico in Spain also features the country's two most successful clubs, with Real Madrid having been crowned champions 32 times to Barcelona's 24.
BVB are third on the all-time list of German football champions with eight, one fewer than FC Nurnberg and some 18 behind Bayern. Accordingly, players who move from Dortmund to Bavaria have tended to be at the peak of their powers, with those moving in the opposite direction often seeking a fresh start.
Of the players mentioned above, Hummels was Dortmund captain and widely regarded as one of the best centre-backs in the game when he made the reported €35 million move in July. Rode, following Gotze in the other direction, had featured for less than 400 minutes as Bayern wrapped up the title under Pep Guardiola last term.
So how did Gotze—a World Cup winner still this side of his 25th birthday and half of a midfield pairing once described as more dangerous than Lionel Messi's trio with Andres Iniesta and Xavi by Franz Beckenbauer in an interview with Bild (h/t Goal)—come to find himself lining up in black and yellow once again?
Few were concerned for Gotze when he arrived at Bayern in 2013—the same summer as Guardiola. The player's devastating dribbling, distribution and reading of the game had propelled him to back-to-back Bundesliga titles, the second of which was a league-and-cup double in 2012.
Matthias Sammer, a UEFA Champions League winner with Dortmund in 1997 and more recently the sporting director at Bayern, described Gotze as "one of the best talents Germany has ever had."
Ability aside, Gotze's style also seemed to fit perfectly with Guardiola's tactical outlook.
An attacking midfielder/false nine, surely Guardiola would use Gotze as he had Messi or Andres Iniesta at Barcelona? Surely it would be the traditional centre-forwards Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizarro struggling for minutes, much as Zlatan Ibrahimovic had done under the Catalan coach at the Camp Nou?
Gotze's maiden campaign went to plan, with the midfielder scoring 10 goals and assisting nine from his 20 Bundesliga starts. He capped off the season with the winning goal against Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final. Gotze was on top of the world.
In the following season, only three outfield players—Lewandowski, Thomas Muller and Juan Bernat—were given more minutes in the league, but a curious thing happened to the then-22-year-old. His attacking output began to slow. From his 28 starts, Gotze still plundered a respectable nine goals and two assists, but the same verve from his game was not quite so evident.
Gotze's defensive play was never the standout aspect of his game, but even that began to wane. Beckenbauer, once the Germany international's biggest fan, lamented at the start of this season that: "Sometimes he seems to me to be like a youth player, who loses two duels and stands still. That does not fit with FC Bayern, of course. It is time that he grows up."
Gotze apologists might point to the fact that he missed some 116 days injured last season with hamstring troubles, and it's certainly difficult to judge a player when he is not playing. However, on his return to fitness, he was dropped for the Champions League semi-final ties with Atletico Madrid, as well as the penalty shootout victory over Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal final.
Gotze's agent, Volker Struth, had long since railed against his player's treatment in Bavaria. "Guardiola has destroyed Gotze," he told Bild (h/t MailOnline) last year. "He feels like the coach doesn't have faith in him, and yet still he is asked to be decisive when he gets on the pitch."
"Gotze only plays in the easy games. I'm surprised nobody at Bayern has realised that and defended Mario. I'm surprised that Guardiola didn't use him in the important matches like the German Cup and Champions League semi-finals."
Gotze was clearly derailed by injury last term, but to speculate on what happened to the midfielder at Bayern is to implicitly blame the club, or Guardiola as Struth did. Perhaps, though, it is more useful to zoom out and look at the ever-evolving tactical landscape of the game.
When Guardiola first implemented Messi as a false nine, he went on to win 14 titles with Barca. At the turn of the last decade, a 4-6-0 formation—with the furthest forward player being any one of a number of midfielders at any given time—grew to be the pre-eminent formation in world football.
In recent seasons, however, centre-forwards have been making a comeback. Leicester City won the Premier League last term against all odds using a 4-4-2 formation lifted straight out of the 1990s. The top scorers in the Bundesliga this term are Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and FC Cologne's Anthony Modeste with 11 each. Last season it was Lewandowski with 30 in the league.
Alongside Aubameyang and Modeste in the race for this year's European Golden Shoe—given to the continent's top scorer—is Edinson Cavani of Paris Saint-Germain, with AS Roma's Edin Dzeko one strike behind on 10.
Lewandowski, Aubameyang, Modeste, Cavani and Dzeko all have two things in common. They are classic centre-forwards who play on the shoulder of the last defender, and—the modern twist—they are expected to defend from the front, winning the ball back in the final third with the path to goal significantly less circuitous.
Dortmund have scored 25 goals in the league this term. Nine players—including defensive midfielder Rode—have made the opposition's net bulge.
Gotze has been given more starts than any of Raphael Guerreiro, Emre Mor, Adrian Ramos and Andre Schurrle, yet each has contributed more goals—either through converting or assisting—than Gotze.
Injuries or not, what happened to Gotze in Bavaria might have happened at any top cub in the world. "Of course I would have liked it if Mario had felt more support," Struth continued. "I am fully convinced that when Mario feels this support, it is easier for him to show his incredible potential. Then he is one of the best players in the world."
Gotze is back playing beside his good friends, Reus and Schurrle—alongside whom he lifted the World Cup in Brazil two years ago—but if he is to find a way back to the pinnacle of the game, he would do well to listen to Beckenbauer's advice, and not Struth's.