Thomas Muller: The space king using his gifts to help Bayern Munich and Germany team-mates get their goals
Pete Sharland looks at why people have stopped giving Thomas Muller the praise that he deserves. The German forward is once again the leading assist-maker in Europe but still he gets little praise outside of Germany, particularly compared to other players across Europe who post similar statistics. Let's change that, shall we?
Here’s a question for you. Why did we fall out of love with Thomas Muller?
At the turn of the last decade Muller was one of the hottest names in football. He was a unicorn - this awkward, gangly, Bambi-on-ice forward who should not have been a footballer - but was also one of the most lethal goalscorers in the world.
Between 2010 and 2016 Muller scored 10 or more league goals in five out of six seasons. In the last of those he scored an astonishing 20. In two of those seasons, 2013 and 2016, he was the third top scorer in the Champions League. All this despite playing in the same team as the freak that is Robert Lewandowski since 2014.
MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 06: (BILD OUT) Thomas Mueller of Bayern Muenchen gestures after the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern München and Sport-Club Freiburg at Allianz Arena on November 6, 2021 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Roland Krivec/DeFodi Image
Image credit: Getty Images
But then we sort of stopped caring about him.
There’s a few reasons for this. One is that he picked up a couple of injuries here and there, one of which, a muscle injury in the 2017-18 season, clearly bothered him quite a lot and caused him to miss over a month. Another reason is the falling out with Niko Kovac, who clearly didn’t appreciate Muller’s qualities in the way he was used.
But there was also another more profound shift in Muller’s game, that sort of happened organically under Carlo Ancelotti and carried on through to Jupp Heynckes, Hansi Flick and now Julian Nagelsmann.
As Bayern have begun to move back to relying on their wingers as goalscoring threats, introducing Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and Leroy Sane in the place of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, Muller has been smart and selfless enough to know that he needed to evolve.
WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 10: Thomas Mueller of Germany talks with the media during a press conference on November 10, 2021 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
Now Muller is a playmaker, not a goalscorer. Sure he’ll still pop up with key goals here and there when he gets the chance, but he has become astonishingly selfless and is now constantly looking to bring his team-mates into goalscoring opportunities.
Here are his Bundesliga assist stats over the past five seasons: 12, 14, 9, 21, 18. And yes before you ask, that season with nine was the Kovac year.
That 2019-20 season stands out for the unique piece of history. It was the first time since the 2014-15 campaign that any player in Europe’s top five leagues hit 20 assists in a season. Ironically that season Kevin De Bruyne, who held the 2014-15 record thanks to his exploits with Wolfsburg, also did it in 2019-20 with 20 for Manchester City. And, proving there must have been something in the water that season, Lionel Messi matched Muller’s tally with 21 of his own in La Liga.
To find the last time before De Bruyne in 2015 that anyone registered 20 assists you have to go back to Thierry Henry’s frankly ludicrous 2002-03 season when he got to 20 in both goals and assists. FBREF tracks data back to the 1995-96 season and per their data no one has ever made over 20 assists in a single season in the top five leagues except for Muller and Messi.
MUNICH, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 06: Thomas Müller of FC Bayern München celebrates victory with Dayot Upamecano after winning the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern München and Sport-Club Freiburg at Allianz Arena on November 06, 2021 in Munich, Germany. (Photo
Image credit: Getty Images
And Muller’s on the same pace this season, leading the assist charts once more with eight so far this campaign. That’s one more than Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba. He’s done that in 11 games. If in the unlikely scenario he keeps that pace for the season he would end with 24 assists, which would break all the records we’ve seen.
At this stage it’s worth reminding ourselves that Muller has done all this playing in a league that has a 34-game season. Absurdly, he actually missed a game in 2019-20, starting 26 and coming off the bench in seven. Last year, when he got 18 assists, he started 31 and came off the bench in one, missing two matches. By contrast in his record-breaking seasons De Bruyne started all 34 games for Wolfsburg, and then started 32 and came off the bench in three for Manchester City. Messi started 32 for Barcelona and came off the bench once.
You want another stat? How about this one. Since the start of the 2019-20 season Muller has 47 assists. The next highest is De Bruyne with 32, and then Messi in third with 30. Per WhoScored, the gap between Muller to De Bruyne in first and second (15) is bigger than from De Bruyne to Kylian Mbappe in 22nd (14).
It’s time to start talking about Muller as one of, if not the best, creative players in Europe. Yes he plays for Bayern Munich and with Lewandowski but Bayern are not the first super-team and Lewandowski is not the first super-striker. This has not been done before.
This is a guy who overcame physical deficiencies in a lack of pace or outstanding technique by honing his mental skills. Few players are as cool under pressure as Muller, and no one can get open like he can.
But the way in which he has gradually reinvented himself as he got older, using that space to subsequently open up more space for his team-mates, is absolutely remarkable.
Watch the first two goals from this match against Koln as a great example of what we’re talking about.
Look at this screenshot just before the first goal.
Thomas Muller receives the ball
Image credit: Eurosport
Muller drops into the gap between midfield and attack to receive the ball. This has three effects: 1) it draws out his marker, 2) it does not draw out the other defender who feels as if he has to play the line, and 3) that means that Lewandowski can make a run that, a) Muller can see and find perfectly, and b) will be onside because of the disjointed nature of the defence. The finish is typically brilliant but it’s made by Muller.
For the second, Lewandowski looks as if he will turn provider as he holds off a couple of defender, waits and then plays in Muller, who makes a smart run. However the pass is a touch behind Muller who, rather than try to force something on his weaker foot, readjusts brilliantly and sticks the ball across goal to Coman, who tucks home. It’s a great example of just how quickly Muller’s brain works and how aware he is of where his team-mates are.
That makes for a very dangerous combination and when you surround him with the sort of weapons he has at Bayern he allows him to conduct one of the best attacks in Europe. He’s the perfect playmaker in Nagelsmann’s system, as he was under Flick and Heynckes. He’s done this over a number of years under a number of managers. Now it’s time to put starting real respect on the name of someone who will go down as one of the greats.