Euro Heroes: Thomas MüllerThomas Müller, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo have all made their mark on European football – and not only with their ball skills. On the eve of Euro 2016, we profile the four players and their journey to the top. Part 4: Bayern Munich star Thomas Müller
Sometimes you want to kiss Thomas Müller’s feet, just because he’s so different and there really shouldn’t be someone like him at the top of the world game. He’s a hustler, a battler; someone who, when you watch him, makes you think to yourself, “Hey, that’s more or less how I play. Maybe I could do that!”
Except, of course, you couldn’t. The 26-year-old German came sixth in the voting for the 2015 FIFA Ballon d’Or. He has won the World Cup and the Champions League, and has scored more than 80 goals in the last three seasons, duping the world’s best goalkeepers and defenders in the process. Müller is phenomenal, making him the player who Bayern Munich are presumably most reluctant to sell.
When Pep Guardiola came to Bayern, he wondered what he should do with this Müller guy. He’s not brilliant technically, not all that convincing when dribbling, doesn’t have great explosive speed, and strategically isn’t right to play in midfield. Müller doesn’t play football, he works at football.
Müller in numbers
The Bayern Munich star was already making football history aged just 20. His greatest strength: instinct – and an eye for even the tiniest gap in defence
With five goals at the tournament in South Africa in 2010, Müller, then 20, became Germany’s youngest-ever top goal scorer at the World Cup, ahead of Gerd Müller and Miroslav Klose
Müller’s market value (€70 million) is of purely academic interest; in 2015, Bayern Munich said he was “not for sale”
At 26, he was the youngest player to record 50 Champions League wins
Müller only needs to win the Euros to complete his collection of international trophies
Guardiola thinks highly of this quality too, of course, but it’s not the way the game is meant to look. Football, as Guardiola understands it, is a thoroughly choreographed game that should play out in a precise manner, yet should also always have something light, natural and poetic about it. Müller goes about football as if he were freeing hostages.
Modern-day, top-flight football is researched like some rare animal. Well-paid coaches examine every aspect of the game with huge teams of analysts. Their aim is to switch off the variables, to rule out the unpredictable.
This is where Müller presents a problem: he doesn’t fit into any system. The way he plays and the moves he makes seem chaotic and completely unpredictable. Müller’s thing is always being in the right place at the right time. That’s always.
The greater the confusion in the penalty area, the greater the swarm of players and the greater the chaos, the more likely it is that at the end of it all, Müller will have scored a goal. If it only happened occasionally, we could talk about luck, but it happens all the time. This is why fans and journalists talk about Müller’s instinct. The term he favours is “space interpreter”.
Whatever we call this ability Müller possesses, modern coaches don’t like it, because his play defies analysis. His goals just happen. They are inexplicable and unpredictable.
Instinct has a bad name in current coaching circles because it means that those in charge of the players have to admit there’s something beyond their control; a sort of magic that’s more powerful than any analysis of the game or any scientific coaching statistic, from lactate to heart-rate variability.
Müller has never tried to be any different, and that marks him out from all the others. He has never tried to fit in, to play differently, be less eccentric. At some point, the footballer himself realised that only a non-optimised Müller would make it into the big time – the Müller he was in the youth team.
Sometimes you’ve just got to do what you think is right, even when everyone around you – the best football coaches on the planet, all the training staff at your record-breaking German club – and also common sense demands the exact opposite. Thomas Müller did it his way, and for that we should kiss his feet.