Think of those large house spiders you might occasionally see scuttling across your floor, usually during a warm summer evening. Just a blur of almost abnormally long, skinny legs, moving erratically and always managing to evade you as you try to corner it. Looking at this gangly arachnid you cannot understand how or why such an awkward looking creature is so surprisingly mobile, yet somehow it is.
Now imagine you are watching either the Nationalmannschaft or FC Bayern München, and concentrating on the man in either the number thirteen or twenty-five shirt. Bustling awkwardly down the right side of the field, shirt hanging out and flapping in the breeze, an almost random blur of drainpipe arms and legs. Beating opponents, drawing fouls, and scoring goals.
Yes, we are talking about Thomas Müller. Thomas Müller, local Bavarian boy and World Cup Golden Boot winner.
Born in the town of Weilheim in Upper Bavaria in September 1989, Müller would first run onto a football pitch as a four-year old for local village side TSV Pähl – and at the age of ten would make an impression on the youth scouts from FC Bayern München. The spindly youngster would develop rapidly as part of the excellent youth development system at the Säbener Straße: by 2007 he would be playing a leading role in the Under-19 Bundesliga side, and by the following year he would be part of the second team playing in the Regionalliga-Süd.
Müller would continue to impress for FC Bayern II in the newly formed third division, and his good form would eventually result in his being picked for the first eleven by coach Jürgen Klinsmann at the beginning of the 2008-09 season. Having made his 1. Bundesliga debut as an eightieth-minute replacement for Miroslav Klose in a 2-2 draw at the Allianz Arena against Hamburger SV on 15th August 2008, Müller would have to wait until the latter part of the season to make a return, chalking up three more late appearances against Arminia Bielefeld, Borussia Mönchengladbach and FC Energie Cottbus.
On 10th March 2009 Müller would also take to the field against Sporting Lisbon in the prestigious Champions’ League, arriving on the pitch as a seventy-second minute substitute for Bastian Schweinsteiger. With Bayern already 4-1 up on the night and 9-1 up on aggregate it would be the perfect opportunity for the teenager, and he would make the most of it in scoring his first senior goal as Bayern went on to secure a stunning 7-1 victory.
Despite this encouraging start in first team colours Müller’s position would never really be assured, but this would all change with the arrival of Dutchman Louis van Gaal as coach at the start of the 2009-10 season. Van Gaal had made his reputation on the nurturing and development of young players, and it would be no different at Bayern where Müller – alongside 2nd XI team mates Holger Badstuber and Diego Contento – would see himself elevated from his bit-part role and reinvented as a versatile midfielder as opposed to an out and out number nine.
Having flitted between the second first teams under Klinsmann, Müller would make three substitute appearances as Bayern got off to a stuttering start to the season – and would follow this with his first 1. Bundesliga start against defending champions VfL Wolfsburg on 29th August 2009. He would be back on the bench the following week for the visit to Borussia Dortmund, but after replacing Hamit Altıntop at the start of the second half would not look back.
With two late goals in a fine 5-1 victory at the Westfalenstadion, Müller had essentially cemented his place in the side. He would from that point on be ever-present during Bayern’s successful domestic campaign that saw them overcome their bad start to secure the league and cup double, and would also play a part in Die Roten’s march to the Champions’ League final that would end in a 2-0 defeat to Internazionale.
Müller’s first full season as a Bayern regular would also see him selected for the German national team. He had been part of the international youth setup since 2004 and would not be a stranger to the Nationaltrikot, but very few would have expected his career to blossom as it did. Having been selected for the senior squad for friendly matches against Côte d’Ivoire and Chile at the end of 2009 – the latter match being cancelled as a result of the tragic death of goalkeeper Robert Enke – Müller would make finally make his full international debut on 3rd March 2010 at his home ground in Munich, arriving on the field as a sixty-seventh minute substitute in what would be a disappointing single-goal friendly defeat to Argentina.
As the selection of the squad for the World Cup finals in South Africa approached, Müller would be one of those names on everybody’s first reserves list – and it was here again that he would get his lucky break. Following the injury to skipper Michael Ballack a place would become available – and with it the famous number thirteen shirt. In what was the culmination of what would be something of a fairytale, the twenty-year old Müller would be going to the World Cup – wearing the number once adorned by his great namesake Gerd. He would make his first start in the Schwarz und Weiß in the final pre-tournament friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Frankfurt, where he played for the first half before being replaced by Piotr Trochowski.
The fairytale would not end there. Having found himself in the starting eleven for the Nationalelf’s opening World Cup finals group match in Durban against Australia, Müller would set up Lukas Podolski for the opening goal before scoring the third – his first senior international goal – in what would be a thumping 4-0 victory.
Müller would follow up his fine opening performance with an assist to set up Mesut Özil’s winner against Ghana in Johannesburg, two fine goals and one assist in a man of the man performance that saw the Mannschaft destroy England 4-1 in Bloemfontein, and the opening goal in the 4-0 quarter-final rout of Argentina, whose controversial coach Diego Maradona would regret his once describing Germany’s new young superstar as being little more than a “ball boy”.
Müller’s value to the team would become evident in the semi-final against Spain, which he would have to sit out following a truly unfortunate and undeserved yellow card against the Albiceleste. Lacking the number thirteen’s intelligence, vision and energy, the team that took to the field in Durban would be little more than a shadow of the side that had racked up eight goals in their previous two matches as they slid to a disappointing 1-0 defeat.
The third place play off against Uruguay would see Müller’s return, and with it yet another well-crafted strike which would take him to the top of the goalscorers’ list with five goals and three assists. Bayern had narrowly missed out on the Champions League and Germany would likewise just miss out on the world crown, but for Thomas Müller it would truly be a golden season – capped off by the award of not only the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top goalscorer but also the Best Young Player Award.
The self-effacing Müller would remain low-key about his exploits: when asked about his fantastic 2010, his response would be “I basically got lucky, I hit form at just the right time”. This would be typical of Thomas Müller, a man who would use his new-found fame not to hog the headlines or make the front page, but to organise a game between a Bayern XI and his village side TSV Pähl where he could take the opportunity of playing against his younger brother Simon and give something back to the local community. Bayern would win 22-1, but Pähl would get a new gymnasium.
Müller’s career would go from strength to strength, and he would quickly become a permanent fixture for both club and country. Not surprisingly for a player who prides himself on his energy and fitness, Müller would remain free from injury: he would play in every single one of Bayern’s competitive fixtures during the 2010/11 season and would would be benched on only three occasions during 2011/12, while for the Nationalelf he would play in all twelve of their European Championship qualifying matches – scoring three goals and providing the supply line for a further seven.
The 2011/12 season would see Bayern reach the Champions’ League final again, this time in their own ground against Chelsea. Müller would score a typical close-range header to give the Bavarians the lead late on in the piece – only to be immediately substituted as coach Jupp Heynckes looked to close out the game. What happened after that would be burned on the memory of all Bayern players and fans forever, among them Müller who had to endure this misery from the bench. Once again, he had proved his value to the side: not only had he scored what should have been the winning goal, but his departure would precipitate a shift in momentum that would see Chelsea come back into the game before finally snatching the trophy in a penalty shootout.
It would be the same story during the European Championship finals a month later, where he would start in the opening group fixtures before being put back on the bench for the quarter-final against Greece and the semi-final against Italy. With Nationaltrainer Joachim Löw employing what could best be described as strange tactics to take on the Italians, the introduction of Müller deep into the second half would be a matter of too little, too late; might things have been different had he started? That, we’ll never know.
To many football watchers around the world, it has taken some time for the value of Thomas Müller to be truly appreciated, but nearly all serious commentators and analysts are unanimous in their verdict. He is a key component of both the Nationalmannschaft and a powerful Bayern side that seems to be on its way to great things.
Watching Müller navigate his way around the the pitch – imagine a demented crab on speed – at first sight it is actually difficult to determine what he actually does. He charges down the wing, but looks distinctly awkward and lacks the free-flowing grace of a Marco Reus, André Schürrle or Marko Marin. He can score goals, but will rarely appear on most pundits’ top list of strikers. Yet Müller’s lack of grace and somewhat relaxed demeanour is counterbalanced by an unbridled energy and passion, and his awkwardness is – for his opponents and those who dare underestimate him – chillingly deceptive.
The key to Müller’s game is not the ability to dribble and drift pass opposing defenders and raise eyebrows in the crowd with dazzling moves, but his guile, intelligence, vision, positioning off the ball and instinctive tactical nous. There is also his great versatility: with both a decent left and right foot he can play on the left, right or through the middle, can shore up the defence when needed and can also play the striker’s role and score goals. If asked, he could probably make a decent goalkeeper too.
Müller is a chess player on the pitch, and his apparent lack of mobility is made up by his ability to read the game: he instinctively knows where to be and – here’s the crucial factor – how to get there first. He is at the same time both anonymous and ubiquitous, the sort of player who is hardly ever noticed on the pitch, but one who is always conspicuous by his absence. He is constantly creating diversions for his more free-running team mates, and sowing the seeds of doubt in opposition defences by popping up unannounced with his trademark grimace or childish grin.
While commentators and analysts having been trying to define Müller’s exact role, he himself would coin a term. In an interview with Andreas Burkert for the Süddeutsche Zeitung in January 2011, Müller would describe himself as a Raumdeuter – literally, a “space interpreter” or, to make things sound more out there, “space investigator”. Although there are few players in world football that are quite like him, it is a term that could well catch on.
One could spend a long time pinning down the exact role of the Raumdeuter. He is the man who is there but isn’t, the ghost who suddenly appears in front of you to win a free-kick, the man who scores that last-gasp winner when you might otherwise have been oblivious to him. That spider that you can suddenly feel crawling up your leg. Probably the best description however comes from Barney Ronay in The Guardian:
[Müller’s] special power is to find space, space invisible to the non-Raumdeuter, and spread into it like a plume of smoke, or a form of insidious footballing dry rot … The fact that Müller coined this term himself in a newspaper interview makes it even better. He’s sidled in there, that sneaky Raumdeuter. He’s found a niche and filled it with himself, no mean feat for a man who doesn’t really look like a footballer at all but instead has an endearingly amateurish air, tousle‑haired and skinny-legged, like a junior doctor on a fun run.
Müller is one of those special players who can do next to nothing for an entire game, and then suddenly turn things on their head with a moment of magic: not magic in the Reus, Özil or Kroos sense, but something uniquely Mülleresque. Hermann Gerland, Müller’s second team coach at Bayern, would once describe der Raumdeuter as the sort of player who could be “completely shit for ninety minutes, but then scores that one goal” (Der Müller, der kann 90 Minuten beschissen spielen – aber dann macht der ein Tor). Unlike those who might give up easily after fluffing half a dozen chances, Müller will just keep on going like the Duracell rabbit.
The statement famously attributed to Robert the Bruce, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try try again”, could well be used to describe the mentality of Thomas Müller: somewhat appropriate, given that his movement on the pitch can be compared to a gangly, irritating spider… Scuttling hither and thither.
To many of his opponents, Der Raumdeuter Müller is something of an annoyance, a pest, a bad penny. Munich’s Scarlet Pimpernel: here, there and everywhere. Just ask Jordi Alba about the sneaky little block to allow Arjen Robben to score Bayern’s third goal in their recent demolition of Barcelona, a move that even after watching it in slow motion half a dozen times still looks more clumsy than cynical. Nobody would have noticed Müller’s movement: he would just appear out of nowhere like some mysterious apparition, and the next thing you would see is Robben charging off in celebration.
Likewise, Müller has often been accused of diving to win free kicks, when truth be told he probably doesn’t even have the acrobatic ability to pull off a respectable Schwalbe with double twist and forward pike à la Klinsi. He just stumbles in a heap, much like that scuttling house spider when you do finally manage to corner it.
While Müller could never be described as truly creative, he is a creator. While others will provide grace and artistry, Müller will always offer hard work and industry. Marco Reus may be a Rolls and Mesut Özil a Porsche, but Müller is your ever-reliable Volkswagen Passat or Mercedes C-Klasse – guaranteed to get you there safely and in good time.
Unlike many of his arguably more talented team mates, Müller doesn’t just bring this unique brand of skills onto the pitch. Allied to his footballing abilities is a mental strength and ability to cope with pressure that has been has been highlighted and praised by many who have worked with him including van Gaal, Löw, Gerland and his more famous namesake whose number thirteen shirt he now wears for the Nationalelf, the great Gerd “Der Bomber” Müller.
Thomas Müller is anything but the archetypal modern footballer: you won’t hear any sensational stories about him falling out of a nightclub or being caught on the street in a speeding performance car. He doesn’t even sport a silly haircut, preferring instead to keep his mop undyed and somewhat unkempt. While the rest of his team mates are squeezing into the new-fangled technologically-advanced torso-hugging shirts, Müller prefers the more traditional baggy look. He is indeed Spiderman, but without the skin-tight suit.
In a world where footballers have largely become drones that churn out the same hackneyed clichés and non sequiturs, Müller is a breath of fresh air. He may be one of the most famous faces in the Bayern squad, but you won’t see him on the catwalk or advertising designer clothing or shampoo. In fact, he is more likely to pop up in an advert for organic yoghurt or bug repellent.
Quiet, intelligent, and professional in every respect, Müller is a player who lets his work on the pitch do the talking. Away from football, he is a man who will let the rest of the world get on with attracting media attention while he retreats to his quiet life at home with wife Lisa – herself a far cry from the typical “WAG” – and their horses and dogs.
Thomas Müller is a footballer for everyone. The girls love him because he isn’t a showoff and appears endearingly gawky. The boys love him for much the same reason – he’s also the class prankster, post-match musical conductor, and one of the lads. Traditionalists love him because he’s a hard worker, understands the finer points of the game and is impervious to pressure just like they used to be in the “good old days”. The Bundesliga hipsters love him because he is, erm, like, “cool”.
In fact, everybody loves Müller – even Bayern’s opponents, who would give their eye teeth to have him in their team. Thankfully for us Bayern supporters and fans of German football, Der Raumdeuter isn’t going to investigate the space outside of Bavaria anytime soon.
Header courtesy of AFP
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