The 2016 Hinrunde was Gonzalo Castro’s chance to cement a star role for himself in Dortmund’s squad. Ilkay Gundogan’s departure left a big hole in the center of the midfield for a box-to-box center mid to fill, and without any like-for-like replacement being brought in by the club, Castro was the most obvious choice to take the spot. He bounced in and out of the starting lineup in the 2015-16 season for Thomas Tuchel, providing plenty of crafty passes and flicks in and around the attacking third for a bevy of assists, and also showed a greater capacity for dropping a bit deeper in the midfield than Shinji Kagawa. He was never able to become a week in, week out starter, however, and the chance for a greater role out of sheer necessity seemed to be the chance Castro needed.
Unfortunately, inconsistency has reigned once again for Castro. Despite promising moments in preseason and a fairly respectable 3 goals and 5 assists in Bundesliga and Champions League play, Castro has once again failed to lock down a starting spot in the team, and seems destined to be a role player under Thomas Tuchel. While it’s apparent Castro can play as a number 8, he doesn’t excel at the role, and it was clear early on in the season that he’s most comfortable closer to goal. Shinji Kagawa and Mario Gotze have taken turns with Castro in the number 10 role due to spikes in form and injuries for all 3, but by the end of the Hinrunde a healthy Mario Gotze or Ousmane Dembele seemed to be Tuchel’s preference in attacking midfield, while Raphael Guerreiro established himself as a central midfielder and Sebastian Rode attempted to fill the number 8 role in Guerreiro’s absence.
Castro’s inability to fill Gundogan’s shoes might be disappointing, but only because the expectation that he could was a bit unrealistic in the first place. Castro has performed just about as well as he did last year for Dortmund. He is a reliable player who can contribute to the score sheet. He fills in where he needs to in the midfield, playing a box-to-box role, an attacking midfielder role, and even on the wing at times.
He is not Ilkay Gundogan. For that matter, he’s not even an in-form Mario Gotze. While he fills those roles as best he can and is certainly capable of conjuring magic of his own, the 2016 Hinrunde seems to have revealed Castro’s ceiling as a player after a torrid Ruckrunde to end last season. Castro is good. Castro is even great at times. But Castro is not a star. And a star (or at least a star in the making) is what Dortmund really needed to replace someone with Gundogan’s pedigree, even taking into account the amount of time the German international spent injured.
2017 will most likely see the same Gonzalo Castro: a more than competent player, but one who isn’t in the same stratosphere as the likes of Dortmund’s top players. He will fill in where he needs to fill in. He will chip in more goals and assists. He will continue to be an important player for Thomas Tuchel’s side, even if that importance is mainly contributing to the depth of a side with plenty of attacking options. We’ll see if all that is enough.