Is Thomas Muller the (third) best footballer in the world?
When you see a great footballer in action, you know it. The recognition of greatness is instant.
When you see a Ronaldo or a Messi or a Zlatan in action, you know immediately that they are great at what they do. That’s because greatness has a way of standing out; a way of saying, “ Look at me!” in a language that is understood by all. Great footballers have that heady concoction of tangible physical qualities and footballing talent that form the perfect ingredients to create moments that make you and I go, “Oh! My goodness, wow!” even if it is the first time you’ve ever seen them in action.
It’s what separates them from the rest of us.
Not Thomas Müller though.
“He never stood out in the youth teams...”
Very rarely does anyone exclaim “Wow!” the first time they see Müller play football. It doesn’t help that Müller looks like an under-fed engineering student – all elbows and knees and gangly limbs; the very antithesis of what an elite athlete should look like.
It helps even less that he gambols around the pitch – wearing those comically short socks – with about as much grace as a newborn giraffe calf. To make matters worse, at times, with the ball at his feet, he can look about as comfortable as a man desperately trying to put the pin back into a live grenade.
He does a lot of things well – he has a good, accurate shot, passes with his head up and is more than a handful in the air. But then again a lot of footballers possess those abilities. Just like in the youth teams that he played in, just like when he started off as a professional footballer, the Bavarian quite simply doesn’t stand out.
In fact, in a world of hyper-athletes and extraordinary talents, Thomas Müller is – on the face of it – quite ordinary. Yet somehow, today, the very epitome of an anti-footballer (anti-athlete even, if you will) is arguably the best player in the world (apart from those TWO, obviously).
How does that make even an iota of sense?
When God created space, Thomas Müller was already there
To understand what makes Müller great, we must understand the one quality that the man possesses that separates him from every other footballer on this planet – the ability to find space. In today’s footballing world of near-fanatic tactical analysis and micro-strategy-management that has shrunk the football field manifold, space is the one thing that is impossible to find (especially in a big-match situation)
And yet somehow, Müller does it – without ever getting caught offside!
His jerky, awkward and perpetual movement is unpredictable, to say the very least. Get too close to him and he will drag you so far out of position that your team will lose all semblance of the shape it started out with, thus creating space for others. Stay too far and he will ghost past you without you even realizing it, thus creating space for himself – as Gaël Clichy found out the hard way:
He can play anywhere in the attacking third of the pitch. He can play inside forward on the right side, an unorthodox trequartista through the centre or inverted winger from the left. He can be a false nine or conventional centre-forward. He has the ability to start a match in any one of these positions and end in any other.
It is near impossible to convey through mere tactical analysis just what the Raumdeuter (a self coined term meaning space-interpreter) does. If you were to go all “Opta on him”, you would find very little that would help you in understanding him. Key passes, tackles put in, aerial duels won – all these are hogwash to the man who, as Joachim Löw put it, walks around the pitch with just one thought in mind – “How can I score?”
And by God, does he score!
The goals – very much like his legendary namesake, Gerd – come in all shapes and sizes. Shots from outside the box sit alongside scruffy half-shots, bullet headers come along with awkward it-actually-hit-the-shoulder-and-went-in kind of headers, graceful curling efforts from the edge of the box complement unbelievably uncomfortable looking tap-ins.
He has 167 goals in 396 matches for Bayern, an even more impressive 30 in 65 for Germany (keep in mind 10 of those goals came at two World Cups). And when he doesn’t score, he is creating them – he has 106 assists for Bayern and a frankly stunning 27 assists for the national team (again, six of those came in World Cups).
The true hallmark of his greatness though is in the fact that the performance of both Bayern and Germany visibly drop when he is not on the field (guess who was suspended for that semi-final defeat against Spain in 2010). It shouldn’t – not with so many wonderful players on both teams – and yet there you have it. It’s almost eerie.
The unassuming, un-fluster-able beer-loving Bavarian from the shores of the Lake Ammersee has been quietly stealing in and killing off matches for the best part of half-a-decade now and that, on the biggest stages – be it the World Cup (where he won the Golden Boot aged 20, and then won the whole damn shebang four years later while pocketing the Silver Boot) or the Champions League (where he scored what had looked like a winner in a super tight final against Chelsea and then won the oh-so-elusive trophy the very next year – playing a starring role in the 7-0 semi-final drubbing of perennial favourites Barcelona).
The joy of Müller
He is also a breath of fresh air in this brand-crazy, squeaky-clean-corporate styled world that football has become.
In the post-match interview after winning the man of the match award against England in the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup, the then 20-year-old politely asked permission to say hello to his grandparents and apologise to them for not calling before – it was charming, innocent and absolutely brilliant to watch.
His honesty when assessing his failings, or his teams’, is a refreshing change from the bland PR-speak we are accustomed to, and his easy confident air is something that makes him ever more endearing.
“For a change I struck that one the way I intended – hey, it can be done!" (After doing this in the crucial Group stage match against the USA in WC ‘14)
“We were extremely crap at the start, then it was OK for a bit, then we were crap again. Then we gave it another go, and then yet again, we were crap" (Reflecting on 3-1 defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach in 2011/12)
“I’m slowly but surely getting the feeling I can do more with my left foot than just get up and fetch a beer” (Speaking about his right footed-ness in 2014)
And this one is my absolute favourite.
What does this have anything to do with him being a great player? Nothing really, except that it is such a joy to see such a self-deprecating, humorous, charming young man, someone who looks, and talks, just like anyone of us, someone possessed of no special out-of-this-world talent other than his footballing brain, cracking the elitist club of the world’s best footballers.
It’s just nice.
Oh, and he actually celebrates a big goal like a human being, screaming and punching the air in almost angry joy – like you and I would after scoring a vital goal in a garden match - instead of doing Dragon Ball Z imitations and those stupid little trademarked heart shape-things.
“He never stood out in the youth teams, but… the team that picked him usually always won”
Holger Badstuber had got that long before the rest of us. A fellow product of the vast and highly impressive Bayern Munich youth system, this is what Badstuber had to say when he was asked a question about his great friend’s successes at the senior level.
The quote so perfectly captures the vague, unexplainable, almost chilling threat that Müller brings to the football field every time he pulls on the no. 25 for his hometown club, Bayern, or the legendary no. 13 of his beloved Deutschland.
He is ordinary, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t great.
No need to take my word for it. Just ask Scotland.
The Germans were below par in the game and the Scots played out of their skins.
Thomas Müller scored two goals – a scuffled shot from the edge of the penalty box and a frankly silly looking yet brilliant reaction header – and assisted one with an eye of the needle ball that took out three defenders in one fell, gangly, swoop.