Reintroducing Thomas Müller as the “Room-Maker”

It is universally acknowledged, in footballing circles, that Thomas Müller is the strangest and most mysterious footballer around. Of course, Müller himself didn’t help matters when he (himself!) coined his own famous nickname: der Räumdeuter, or “the space investigator/translator,” a delightfully clever bastardization of der Traumdeuter, or “dream interpreter,” according to Uli Hesse in his Guardian/8by8 profile on Müller. Thus far, Hesse’s interview and profile is the best thing I’ve read about Müller to date. In fact, before you read my piece, you should go read Hesse’s profile in its entirety, then come back. Hesse does a fabulous job exploring the quirky aura and talents surrounding the goofy and lanky footballer. In his profile, Hesse does it all: describes a classic “Müllery” match moment in loving detail, muses on Müller’s grandmas, explains the utterly “averageness” of the man himself, offers insider touches — like der Torriecher (“goal sniffer”), Müller’s original German nickname — and simply declares that, in the absence of slick-ass skill, Müller simply beats you. Every time. Hence, in Hesse’s estimation, he’s “the most enigmatic man in international football.”

Müller himself compels explanation, hence the mini cottage industry of writing swirling around him, trying to make sense of football’s dentist lookalike. So to this cottage industry, I humbly submit the following piece. I’ve been attracted to Müller ever since the 2010 World Cup, yet like everyone else have never made sense of him. I get it: he’s unremarkable, yet transcendent; simplistic, yet beguiling. My hunch is that the usual methods of explanation break down with Müller. We need new paths, new points of view, and new tools for appreciating his paradox. Hence my attempt to try out something new with him.

Labeling Müller as an enigma is starting point for discussions about the player. For example, you’ll find this view under-girding Callum Rice-CoatesThese Football Times profile on Müller. In this piece, Rice-Coate translates Müller’s enigma in terms of his utterly unique role. Rice-Coates tracks Müller’s paradoxical improvement during the player’s three years under auteur head coach Pep Guardiola, concluding that Müller—a self-confident nonconformist in Rice-Coates’ judgment—flourished within Pep’s seemingly constrained ball-possession system, which itself became an “atacking ecosystem,” allowing der Räumdeuter to play with even greater optimism and opportunism than before. In other words, Pep helped Müller become an improved version of himself.

Moving through Müller cottage industry, other writers try to make sense of him with tactical terminology. For example, you’ll frequently encounter the label “False 9” in writing about Müller. Rice-Coates invokes the label, as does the fascinating site—I kid you not!—theraumdeuter.com, which even offers a “meaning” page on the whole Räumdeuter thing. Be still my beating heart! It’s good — give it a read. In this tactical reading, Müller is interpreted within the specialized, amorphous, yet dangerous attacking roles of Adolfo Pedernera, Nándor Hidegkuti, Alfredo di Stefano, Michael Laudrup, Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo, or—of course—Leo Messi. These players were all given freedom for roaming, finding spaces, discovering their own timing, and disrupting opponents’ schemes. In this role, Müller has been played in all three “frontline” attacking positions during his career (left, center, right).

In this tactical telling of the Müller enigma, Luis Van Gaal was the first coach to figure out that Müller worked best on the right side. Next, taking a cue from his work with Messi, Pep allowed Müller to roam around (starting from the right side!) in the wake of space left open by a well-marked Robert Lewandowski. And Müller thrived, putting in his best seasons to date. Finally, under Carlo Ancellotti and most recently Jupp Heynckes, Müller has largely remained in this role, as you can see from InStat Football‘s action map of Müller from the the last season and a half:

Thomas Müller’s action areas during the 2016-17 and the Hinrunde of the 2017-18 Bundesliga seasons. Source: InStat Football.

Although Müller really does roam all over the pitch, as do many Bayern players in the aftermath of Pep’s ultra-contemporary flex-systems, the shaded red triangle marks out his area of highest concentration. It is right side oriented. And roughly triangular. This shape is useful as a visual reference for making sense of Müller’s actual presence on the pitch, which itself can be hard to pin down, given his ability to “ghost” in and out of positions, let alone camera angles. Anyhow, the shape corroborates the notion that, given his Räumdeuter role, Müller moves up the pitch in rightward channels, before moving into more central space, or moving into the box itself. At least this is the general tendency, as many commentators have already made clear.

However, as concrete and correct as this explanation of Müller’s positioning is, it misses something important: the weird experience of actually watching Müller play football—something like the phenomenology of Müller. To my mind, nobody has made sense of this phenomenon yet. And it’s no wonder, since Müller plays football in a ghostly-hard-to-keep-track-of way. I spent about 90 minutes watching Müller footage on InStat Football’s scouting platform. From this viewing, I made a playlist of the player’s movements, goals, assists, pressing moves, dribbles, etc. etc. etc. The experience was enlightening and helped me come to terms with the phenomenological aspects of watching Müller.

What first struck me was how suddenly Müller can enter a camera frame in unanticipated angles, usually from Bayern’s right flank, or in an arrow-straight vertical line right up the pitch. The entrance vectors were bewildering: on one hand, they were direct, but, on the other hand, they quickly dissipated into (forgive me!) “Tom-Müllery” as he did something unexpected, like completely change the direction of his body or ball. It was like Müller  already knew about open space before it appeared. Regardless, in any situation, Thomas Müller offers you something. Usually something good. Although I wouldn’t call him versatile, yet with his height, his wide frame, his dribbling, his passing, his balance, his goal-scoring abilities, his unworldly two-footedness, he’s the guy you want to rebound a ball for your team.

But here’s the kicker—and perhaps the most important thing about Müller—he moves as if an algorithm predetermines his footballing plans; put differently, Müller plays as if in the throes of intentionality (I’m not sure how else to describe this aspect of his play). I don’t mean to say that Müller plays mechanically like a robot. No. Rather, Müller sees the game unfolding faster than other players. He’s ahead of others in this regard. Think about it like this: usually, Müller plays with little-to-no hesitating or pausing. He’s being commanded by an intention, so there’s no need to hesitate. It’s no wonder that Müller, certainly not Bayern’s fastest sprinter, paradoxically plays football faster speed than any other Bayern player. Something like this ability to read the game better than anyone else is surely what we’ve had in mind with Müller’s der Räumdeuter nickname, and the why likes of English philosopher Simon Critchley marvel at the German. However, talk about “reading the game” or even dropping der Räumdeuter moniker can cover over what’s underlying Müller’s unique ability. The phrase “reading the game” reverts to familiar ready-made talk about sport, already pre-packaged with its own assumptions and conclusions. In other words, simply saying that Müller “reads the game” doesn’t explain much beyond merely gesturing at a blanket term we use to describe “smart” athletes.

So let’s dive underneath this familiar surface talk.

First, here’s a helpful classical idea: Müller plays with a sense of phronesis: he does the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason. Phronesis is about a perfect single concept to use for describing Müller. There’s a “rightness” about his play—a rightness compensating for his lack of elite athleticism, speed, skills, etc. You can see this clearly when he breaks into the right space at the right time. Or shoots in the right way. Or plays a pass for the right reason. I think about phronesis when Müller scored his famous bicycle kick goal against Darmstadt: his turn toward play (the right time), his chest touch (the right way), and his shot (the right way—somehow, as ugly as it was!), and the goal (the right place and right reason).

Okay, but a naysayer might counter that surely all elite footballers have this sense. On one hand, yes. Something like this sense might define what sets (some) elite footballers apart from just really skilled footballers. On the other hand, no. However, footballers, even elite ones, seem to have possess “rightness” in perhaps 2-3 ways, but the not 1-2 ways. In other words, the total package of “rightness” isn’t there, just bits and pieces. Müller’s phronesis, by contrast, is unique. It’s total. I would argue that Leo Messi doesn’t even possess this trait. (In fact, aside from him, I think only Mexico’s Chicharito has this ability, albeit to a less degree than Müller.) In other words, I wouldn’t attribute’s Messi’s transcendent play to something like phronesis; paradoxically, there might even an ironic and slight”wrongness” about Messi’s play, which lifts him above everyone else, but Messi is another topic for another day. Alright, you might concede, so Müller possesses phronesis, but where does this sense come from? In other words, what underlies it, or animates it?

To answer this quesiton, I need some new analytical tools.

I finally starting making sense of Müller only after finishing philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) last year, especially when Heidegger describes space. First, Heidegger explains that there isn’t simply “pure” space existing in a sort of vacuum of meaning, or as pure “extension,” as 17th century philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes formulated it. In fact, Heidegger heavily critiques this Cartesian concept of space as a sort of pre-existing, empty, and neutral medium that us humans simply fill up and occupy. (Aside: this Cartesian notion is probably how nearly everyone understands space—consciously or not—in modernity.) Against this popular Cartesian understanding, Heidegger conceives space phenomenologically; that is. Heidegger’s trick is to think about space through our human experience of it.

In general, however, I think football commentary about space just reproduces this Cartesian notion. Our tactics talk, our talk about missed goals, or our talk about defensive marking all presume something like the in-a-vacuum Cartesian space of pure extension. Within this space, footballers become widgets or switches in a network, who should follow mechanical rules of motion for our analytical pleasure. Of course, they are not widgets and don’t follow mechanical rules. And here, the Heideggerian sense of space offers more explaining power.

Heidegger’s basic point about space is that it’s experienced through an always already-given structure of significance and possibility, which can be called our “care-structure.” Properly speaking, we don’t “fill up” space or peer into pure space and discern what’s there. Rather, we are in a state of being always already thrown into the world, amid our”care-structure,” looking at possibilities, making meaning, making plans, taking things, doing things, etc. In this sense, and here Heidegger introduces the element of time, we experience space based on the past or the future; that is, space always possesses meaning based on what we’ve done in the past, or plan to do in the future. Because of this time effect, Heidegger argues that we are ahead of ourselves, since we are already in the world, planning and acting based on the past or “futural” possibilities we can exploit.

Thus, and here it gets tricky (hang in there!), we operate in space through two main actions: 1) directionality, and 2) de-distancing. Directionality means something like the notion that “direction” itself (i.e. literally where we can go to) is already pre-defined by all the possibilities surrounding us in what could be called a totality of relevance. De-distancing means something like the notion that, given the relevance already surrounding us, we move toward things or bring them nearer to us, depending on their significance, possibility, meaning, etc. Finally, Heidegger observes that we usually exert our “care-structure” within a world of others, compromising social norms, prescriptive ways of doing things.

Basically, you should be getting the sense that, according to Heidegger, space itself is already teeming with significance and possibility for us, and that it’s not an empty medium we fill up or extend into. In fact, the very direction we take and what bring near or away from us is all part of this pre-existing structure of significance. Heidegger is so sensitive on this difference that instead of the word space, the word room (Räum, or Räumlichkeit) more accurately describes what he’s getting at. The word is loaded with connotations: we humans inhabit rooms, we “make” rooms, we decorate rooms, we design rooms, we get “vibes” from rooms, etc. In other words, rooms are already pregnant with significance and possibility. Heidegger conceives of the world itself in this “roomly” way.

A football match is a great example of these Heideggerian concepts. The pitch itself forms a sort of “region” into which all kinds of meaning, significance, possibilities, and movements already exist, as the 22 players move in various directions and bring things nearer or further away. The rules of the sport, plus a 100+ years of prior experiences and examples, all form norms or “rules” for how we experience football. Naturally, this pre-existing layer of meaning can limit what’s possible as players merely play the game within the horizon of common expectations, common moves, common possibilities, etc.

Do you see where I’m going with this line of thought?

This phenomenon also has to do with time. Within this normative framework, players rely primarily on what “has been” done already in training, film analysis, or from prior playing experience; moreover, players simultaneously cast ahead to the future, looking for the next move, or what past experience dictates should happen next. Mostly, footballers conform to this behavior; it’s normative. That is, footballers mostly play based on the past, while projecting toward the future.

And why not? Increasingly, footballers are coached to play according automated movements, patterns, schemes, truncated logic trees, etc. I don’t mean to suggest that patterns and schemes are “bad” per se. They are unavoidable. In fact, according to Heideggerian logic, most players would conform to established ways of playing the sport regardless of coaching. Or that they would force these established ways of playing upon the game. Luckily for us spectators, this type of conformity is actually beautiful to see in action, and often marks out what the very best players and teams do—for example, think of what’s implied in the talk about automatisms with Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund sides or what Jürgen Klopp tries to instill when teaching gegen-pressing.

Moreover, one key implication of my automatisms analysis is that, as writers and commentators, we can try to break automatisms down into discrete events/patterns on the pitch, which, in turn, creates a common vocabulary for talking about the game. Naturally, I myself have benefited immensely from and contributed to this work. And in an average-everyday sort of way football conforms to these familiar formulations, both as we talk about it and how its played and coached.

Which is why Thomas Müller startles us. We don’t have the ready-made formulations for experiencing, let alone understand him.

Which is also why I believe that Müller’s uniqueness is best explained outside normative footballing discourse. Hence the language of philosophy and Heidegger for appreciating him.

My hunch is that Müller isn’t moored to the strings of “has beens” or “futural possibilities” that other footballers are bound to. Nope. Instead, Müller’s sense of temporality puts him in the present, which means he experiences space differently than everyone else in football.

I’ll put it like this: Müller makes room.

He’s a room-maker essentially, or what Heidegger calls das Raüm-Einnehmen (see Part II, ch. 4). In fact, Müller’s Räumdeuter nickname already points in this direction, thanks to Räum-, which gestures toward space on the football pitch as a “room,” that is space already teeming with meaning and possibility, rather than sterile, pure “empty space.”

However, because football is played within time limits and constant motion, there’s an interesting temporal component to footballing “Räum.” That is, Müller’s ability to experience space in such a meaningful way is predicated on his sense of time. To put it technically, Müller  is more in tune with and aware of the “care structure” (i.e. that world of glittering possibilities) that Heidegger describes; Müller sees more in the present, because his playing senses are not narrowed by the past or the future. Of course to be clear, I don’t mean that Müller is oblivious about what could happen next during the run of play. He’s not. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be a professional footballer. Rather, his sense of the future seems deferred slightly—I’m talking about micro-instants here, people!—by what he does in the present. Going back to Heidegger talk, he picks up on “Directionality” and “De-distancing” quicker than anyone else, or in ways that other are not even aware of. Hence, there isn’t as much “automaticity” to Müller’s play.

Put differently, Müller makes room that others don’t (or can’t!) make because his sense of temporality is different.

For Müller, space itself seems to have more expansive or simply alternative possibilities that other players don’t pick up. Why? Because, I’d argue, he’s not chained to “has beens” nor bound by “futural possibilities” in the same encompassing way others are. Even Müller himself admits that his play is first about timing, then about space. Müller’s sense of time is everything. Thus, I’m not surprised that Müller got better under Pepp Guardiola’s coaching and lineups. The Spaniard gave the German the most leeway to play in his unique temporal register, even furthering his role as a Torreicher (goal-opener) for Bayern.

In a profound sense, Müller steps back and let the game come to him. There’s a important sense of “letting” at work in Müller’s play. Elsewhere, philosopher Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, in Fascinations: In Praise of Athletic Beauty, refers to this sense as composure, or what in German is Gelassenheit, “the capacity of letting be.” The idea here is that, paradoxically, composure slows the game down for the likes of Müller inasmuch as he inhabits space, then makes space. To the rest of us, it looks like Müller is actually playing faster than everyone else, i.e. reading the match faster than everyone else. And in a sense, he is. My implication here is that Müller actually experiences the game more slowly than others, while appearing to read it faster. Of course, this idea is similar to the commonplace in sport that the game “slows down” for elite athletes. The same applies to Müller; yet as someone with a deep love for sport and its significance, I find the game “slowing down” commonplace to be inadequate. I want to why it slows down for the likes of Müller, or how it slows down. Or, dare I ask, what is it like to experience a sport “slowing down”?

So far, philosophy and specifically Heidegger’s phenomenological approach offer the most compelling set of tools for my inquiry. Better tools might be out there. I don’t know. But for now I think I can finally appreciate Müller more fully. Yes, my proposed new nick name, “Der Räum-Einnehmen,” is horribly clunky, but it’s accurate. However, I can’t imagine it catching on, so we’ll all stick to  der Räumdeuter for now. Besides, who am I to rob a man of own nickname?

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

1 Comment

  1. I had never thought I would find Heidegger in a column about football, thanks for this Travis. I will watch Bayern games looking out for Müller’s movement now. Gumbrecht sounds interesting as well.

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