When comparing the world’s top footballers, they can be categorized into positions, abilities and styles. Fans and pundits alike are always eager to identify the world’s best number 10 or the world’s best traditional striker yet there are certain players who cannot fill these stock, archetypal player roles. Since his sudden rise to the limelight of world football in 2010, no player has transcended boundaries such as Thomas Müller. He is a combination of other-worldly unorthodox and traditionally fundamental — a player who finds unique ways to create space yet consistently makes textbook decisions with his passing and finishing.
Since his debut for FC Bayern Munich in August 2008 as a 19-year-old, Müller has played in virtually every attacking position. In his breakout World Cup 2010 campaign Müller started every game in which he featured as a right winger, in Bayern’s treble winning season he played in the number 10 role, while most would describe his natural position as a striker.
However Müller’s playing style and impact is identical. A man who has won the Champions League, the World Cup as well as the World Cup silver ball and finished as high as 5th on the Ballon D’Or final list yet has never featured on a FIFA World XI is due to the simple fact that he cannot be categorized into a position.
His habit of playing between lines and roaming to opposite corners of the pitch is a dream for managers specializing in free-flowing football. German national team manager Joachim Löw has claimed that Müller is “impervious to pressure” which is signified by his habit of scoring and creating iconic goals in tournament finals. His superlative finishing ability allows for him to take advantage of those dangerous areas he so often finds himself in. Muller is famously described as the Raumdeuter which roughly translates to space investigator. His awareness and ability to find space is borderline supernatural. The Bayern man is a player who doesn’t pride himself on physical abilities like pace and strength but rather the intellectual aspect of the game.
A player of such remarkable qualities was a match made in heaven linked to world football’s most innovative manager, Pep Guardiola, a manager who recognized the qualities Müller possesses and was able to create the ideal system to get the most out of those qualities. In recent games with the German national team, Müller experienced a slight dip in form when played as an out and out striker in the absence of Klose; this was due to opposing centre backs being aware of his threat and applying coverage as necessary. Müller is lethal when employed as a #10 because he drifts into gaps between lines and makes excellent runs in behind. Yet due to the nature of how most teams set up in modern football, opposing holding midfielders in 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 systems often have the sole responsibility of breaking up play and tracking opposing #10s.
In theory, the way to optimize the role of Müller would be to allow him to play without a position, to free him to roam while maintaining support and options around him. Guardiola was aware of this potential and thus was the reinvention of the 3-4-3 system. This formation allows Bayern to play with two natural defensive midfielders with the option of selecting between Xabi Alonso, Javi Martinez, Thiago & Arturo Vidal, all world-class options. A three man backline typically consists of three natural centre backs, but due to the injury woes of Mehdi Benatia & Holger Badstuber and the fact that, under Pep, lines are blurred, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm can often feature on either side of Boateng or in the wide midfield/wing back positions. The two wide positions in the midfield four can be occupied by fullbacks or natural wingers. In Kingsley Coman, Douglas Costa, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, Germany’s rekordmeisters are not short of high-quality options.
The real intrigue of this system comes in the form of the attacking three. Robert Lewandowski serves as a traditional 9, allowing him to occupy opposing centre backs. Due to the Pole’s individual quality, he warrants significant attention from opposing managers and backlines. Another position in the attacking three can be taken up with a traditional playmaker such as Mario Götze or one of the Bavarian side’s many wingers. The second attacking player’s primary responsibility is to occupy the opponent’s ball-winning midfielder.
This is where the freedom of position for Müller becomes a possibility. The opponent doesn’t have a designated player responsible for tracking Muller and this allows the 26 year-old to use the presence of his illustrious teammates to operate in the shadows. This discrete, yet killer primal instinct is what makes Müller so dangerous. When Pep chooses to play with a back four, Müller plays off of Lewandowski as an attacking midfielder but due to Costa, Coman and Robben’s superb 1 v 1 ability they attract multiple defenders. This also opens space for Müller to exploit.
When supported by other dangerous attacking players, all taking up stock positions, Müller is able to simply play between the lines without an opposing player strictly responsible for tracking his particular movements. This is the indispensable factor of Bayern’s system under their Spanish coach. Müller, one of the most spatially aware players in world football liberated by meticulous tactical planning, is put in a position to thrive.
The result of the recognition of his tactical importance has been Müller’s highest scoring season to date. A personal best 21 goals and 5 assists in 26 appearances by the end of the Hinrunde is remarkable. Many other teams have electric, pacey wingers and lethal strikers, yet there is no player in football who exhibits a playing style comparable to that of the still young Thomas. Guardiola, by recognizing that Müller’s abilities exceed individual ability and should be used in discussion and implementation of tactical planning, has found ways to optimize Bayern’s magisterial attack. Müller is more than one of the most dynamic attackers in world football; for Bayern, he personifies a dynamic tactical advantage that opposing teams simply do not possess.
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