Robert Lewandowski might be Bayern Munich's most lethal forward, but the prize for their best player this season arguably belongs to Thomas Muller.
A regular fixture at the Allianz Arena for 11 years, Muller is sixth on Bayern's all-time appearance list on 523 games and has scored 196 goals. His 147 assists give him a total of 343 goal involvements in a club career that has yielded 21 trophies.
His place in Bayern folklore is secure. At the start of the season, the same couldn't be said for his future.
Muller started just three of 11 Bundesliga games under Niko Kovac and did not complete 90 minutes even once. His struggles at club level came after Germany coach Joachim Low decreed he would no longer be required for international duty, a century of senior caps and a World Cup winners' medal not enough with which to plead his case.
It seemed Muller's career at the highest level was petering out. And then, last November, came a Flicker of hope.
When Kovac's troubled time in charge came to an end, assistant Hansi Flick was tasked with steadying the ship and getting a trophy challenge back on track. Six months on, the former Germany number two has done just that, rewriting the story of the season with Muller as his chief protagonist.
"Emotionally, it was very tense back then," was how Muller described his time under Kovac, shortly after he extended his contract to 2023 in April.
"With the change of coach and different playing style, everything has developed positively. Not only have I been playing more, but I've also been able to put my stamp on our games again."
Flick certainly saw every reason to put his faith back in Muller, naming the 30-year-old in his starting line-up for 14 of his first 16 Bundesliga games in charge. Muller has repaid that by producing arguably the form of his career.
Since Flick took over, Muller was been involved in 20 Bundesliga goals for Bayern, scoring seven and setting up 13. That's the best record at the club, and came after he endured a goal drought of 1,356 minutes that ended in late November.
This is not a case of a forward feeling unburdened during a 'new manager bounce', either. Muller has been at the heart of Flick's set-up. He has been involved in by far the most open-play sequences to end in a shot (121 – at least 17 more than any other player). In terms of sequences to end in a goal, only Lewandowski on 23 comes close to Muller's 27. He has also had a hand in 27 of Bayern's 49 league goals from open play under Flick.
CHASING DOWN DE BRUYNE
Aside from goalscorer, Muller has taken on something of a new role under Flick: that of playmaker.
Flick seems to have remembered Muller's qualities from their time working together at international level and embraced them. In short, Bayern's best football now goes through their number 10.
Under Flick, Muller is averaging just over 70 touches per 90 minutes, a higher number than he has recorded under any other Bayern coach. His goal-involvement average stands at one every 66 minutes – a personal best in the Bundesliga by far.
Muller's distribution seems to be getting better, too. He has completed 79 per cent of his passes under Flick, created close to four chances per 90 minutes on average, and 1.3 certified 'big chances'. Louis van Gaal, Jupp Heynckes, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti – none of them could get Muller to reach these numbers.
It tallies, then, that Muller is enjoying his best season for Bundesliga assists. His 17 in the first 27 matchdays has only ever been achieved once, by Kevin De Bruyne for Wolfsburg in 2014-15.
Another four assists in the remaining seven games will see Muller eclipse the Belgium star's Bundesliga record of 20 for a whole season. That would be a remarkable number to reach for a forward who doesn't take set-pieces.
Then again, Muller is no ordinary player.
@OliverKahn : "We’re glad we’re keeping a figurehead like Thomas Müller at the club. He’s shaped the club for more than ten years with his great football and his likeable personality." #MiaSanMia #Müllered2023 #FCBayern @esmuellert_ pic.twitter.com/8LoBTB38AP— FC Bayern English (@FCBayernEN) April 7, 2020