Bayern Munich attacker Thomas Müller registered 24 league assists in the 2021 calendar year, more than any other player across Europe’s top five leagues. But how and when does he do the damage?
The easy answer is: almost always. After all, those 24 assists came in just 36 appearances. Scratch beneath the surface a little, however, and it is possible to see Müller’s favourite positions for teeing up his teammates, as well as with which foot and at which times during games.
We’ll start with the when. Dividing matches into 15-minute windows, Müller’s leanest spells in 2021 were in the opening quarter of an hour with just two assists and in the closing 15 minutes with one.
In between times he recorded six (between minutes 16-30), seven (31-45), five (46-60) and three (61-75).
Watch: All of Müller's Bundesliga assists in 2021
Do his relatively barren periods bookending his games mean he is slow out of the blocks and quick to tire? Unlikely. More probable is that teams tend to sit deep against Bayern early on – making them tougher to break down when defenders still have full energy reserves. Once the Reds hit their groove and spaces begin to appear, Müller strikes.
Bayern’s matches are also often decided long before the closing stages, so Müller – work done for the day – is regularly taken off to give him a breather ahead of the next game. In 2021 the Bayern No.25 was substituted off 17 times after minute 61, a fact that goes a long way to explain his comparatively meagre output in those match phases.
But his otherwise astonishing returns are no accident. Müller finished as the Bundesliga’s assist king in the past two seasons, setting a new record in 2020/21 with 21, having posted 18 in the previous campaign.
He is on 13 already in 2021/22, a new league record for the first half of a season since detailed data collection began in 1992 (Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz is his closest challenger with eight), while he has also created more chances (54) and clear-cut opportunities (10) for teammates than any other player in the Bundesliga this term.
It is that consistency that truly separates Müller from the rest. In the entirety of 2021 he never went more than three games without providing an assist. Between 13 March and 20 April he even went on a five-game spree in which he set up a teammate to score in every outing spanning Matchdays 25 and 29, tallying six assists in the process.
The Bavarian native has done even better this season, only drawing a blank on Matchday 15 in an otherwise perfect run between Matchdays 8 and 17 in which he registered 11 provisions.
So if we know when he likes to do it, why can’t teams stop him? Well, that brings us to the how and where.
"He's got outstanding quality and was always one of the most difficult players to prepare to face as an opponent,” said Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann at the start of this season, recalling his time trying to find solutions for Müller while in charge of Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig. “You just can't pick him up because he's got this incredible feel for space.”
There’s the key word: space. The self-styled ‘Raumdeuter’, or space interpreter, ostensibly lines up behind Robert Lewandowski in a central position in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But he is given license to roam, to feel the tingle of his spidey-sense and seek out the areas where he can hurt opponents.
Of his 24 league assists, six came from the right wing, four from the left wing and 14 from central positions. Yet even in the latter category there is a huge amount of variation in location: he was inside the centre circle for two of them, inside the box for four, on the edge of the area of just outside for three, and in the middle third of the opposition half for five.
Overall, 16 assists were made with his right foot, six with his left and two with his head. Eight have created goals for Lewandowski, four for Serge Gnabry, three each for Jamal Musiala, Leon Goretzka and Leroy Sane, two for Kingsley Coman and one for Dayot Upamecano.
In other words, such glorious unpredictability means the entire opposition half is Müller’s playground. And he is very much the schoolyard bully.
We’re only half-joking. For a player who once quipped that he “never gets injured because I don’t have any muscles,” he is deceptively strong. Müller out-fought and out-muscled both Hoffenheim’s Chris Richards on Matchday 9 and Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels on Matchday 14 to set up goals for Lewandowski.
Watch: All of Müller's league goals in 2021
Add into the mix his 10 Bundesliga goals in 2021 and what you’re faced with is a relentless, all-out assault.
And Nagelsmann recently highlighted another trait that makes Müller so unplayable: his reading of the game and sense of anticipation.
“He’s a great player, a great mentality,” the Bayern supremo told ESPN when asked about Müller after the attacker made a milestone 400th Bundesliga appearance in the Matchday 17 triumph over Wolfsburg.
“It’s interesting because it’s not nice that we don’t have fans in the stadium, but if there is one positive to come out of it then it’s that we can hear Thomas. He’s very, very clever. He’s like a coach on the pitch.
“He recognises different situations, how to solve different problems. He tries to convince players to attack in the same way he did. He’s brilliant. In the second half he defended a bit deeper, but you see the chance for Lewandowski before Serge [Gnabry] goes deep into the box - even before the ball is passed to him, he screamed: ‘Serge go deep.’ He sees the situation five seconds before it actually happens.”
So is there any way to stop Müller? Well, not really. In addition to all of the above seeking answers to the when, where and how, there is also the question of why. And it is arguably this that is the key. What motivates Müller?
As cheesy as it might sound, he just loves playing football. “We have a very attacking philosophy,” Müller told bundesliga.com after teeing up the opener for Goretzka in the 2-1 Matchday 11 victory over Freiburg.
Watch: Müller on Bayern's attacking philosophy
“The most enjoyable thing is to score goals and when you have the ability in your team, and you can feel that you’re always capable of creating goalscoring chances, then you don’t want to stop.
“That’s why we’re always looking for the next goal, and the next one and the next one. That’s how you end up in those situations. Hansi Flick demanded it of us and Julian Nagelsmann is also a coach who is all about attacking football.”
With the second half of the season about to kick off, buckle up for the next few episodes of the Müller show.
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