Thomas Müller has long been a footballing enigma, a code that opponents and analysts have been unable to crack. His unique Raumdeuter style of play, as well as on-field leadership, have made him one of the first names on the teamsheet for successive Bayern Munich coaches. But how will Julian Nagelsmann cover for his absence?
Müller, now 32 but seemingly at the peak of his powers, will at the very least miss Bayern’s Matchday 24 encounter with Eintracht Frankfurt as he self-isolates. Even if all goes well, it will still be touch and go for the following clash at home to Bayer Leverkusen.
They will be the first games he has missed all season. Müller is the only player to have appeared – in fact, started – all 33 competitive fixtures in 2021/22. Like previous coaches at the Allianz Arena, Nagelsmann has immediately acknowledged that the homegrown hero is indispensable.
Müller leads not only the Bundesliga but also all of Europe’s major five leagues for assists with 16 – six more than anyone else. He tops the division in Germany for chances created (68) and has also chipped in with seven goals. It means a direct hand in 23 out of Bayern’s 74 league goals, which is very nearly a third.
Watch: Müller was voted the January Player of the Month
Bayern have tried and, as is generally agreed, failed in recent years to find a substitute for Müller with the likes of James Rodriguez and Philippe Coutinho in that playmaker role. Of the two Bundesliga games he previously missed in 2020/21, Bayern drew 3-3 with Arminia Bielefeld and lost 2-1 at Frankfurt – their next opponents.
So, let’s have a look at Nagelsmann’s options…
Tactical flexibility has been just as much a hallmark of Nagelsmann’s Bayern as scoring goals. They have switched between a back three and four between games and even during 90 minutes. They have played with one holding midfielder and four attackers behind Robert Lewandowski; two midfielders with two wingers either side of Müller off Lewandowski; Müller and Leroy Sane forming a double No.10. Even then, Müller and Sane have drifted between positions and lines in a very flexible setup.
Sane has seen a number of positional changes this season under Nagelsmann. A switch from an inverted winger on the right to a conventional one on the left saw his numbers explode, and he is now on six goals and seven assists from 22 Bundesliga appearances.
But the 26-year-old has also been given permission to drift infield and take up a position as a No.10, both alongside Müller and also in place of him when the Raumdeuter has gone about interpreting space elsewhere.
Watch: Analysing the new Sane
That freedom to go both down the outside and play between the width of the box has allowed Sane to exert real influence in the final third. He is joint-third in the division for assists (seven), 10th for chances created (43) and also third for shots taken (74).
On paper, he is the closest Bayern have to a direct replacement for Müller, having even played in his position. The issue with Müller, however, is that there is no like-for-like replacement in the world. It is always a case of getting as close as possible.
People might be looking to Jamal Musiala as a long-term successor to Müller for Bayern and Germany. In terms of position, he can do the Müller attacking midfielder role. The 877 minutes he has had in the league this season are less than half the possible playing time and he has also only made seven starts, but his numbers are still good with three goals and four assists, plus 21 attempts on goal.
What you cannot forget with Musiala is that he is still a teenager, only turning 19 on the day of the Frankfurt game. The way he burst onto the scene caused much excitement and also expectation to fall on his young shoulders.
Watch: The best of Musiala
The absence of Müller but also Corentin Tolisso means Musisla’s return is likely, it’s just a question of where?
It would be a real sign of confidence from Nagelsmann if he were to go for a straight swap. In reality, he’s more likely either to play alongside Sane centrally in a four-man front line behind Lewandowski, on one of the wings in a three or four, or drop deeper and partner Joshua Kimmich in central midfield. But it’s a chance for the youngster to stake his claim for more time.
It was really for moments like this that Marcel Sabitzer was signed from RB Leipzig in the summer. He was brought in to add depth to the squad, capable of playing across the middle and final third (and actually even at left-back, as we have seen this season).
When the squad is fully fit, Müller plays in front of a midfield pair of Kimmich and Leon Goretzka. Injuries and indifferent form mean Sabitzer has been unable to stake his claim as first reserve, let alone push for a start. That allowed Tolisso an extended run where he showed good form.
The Austrian had a direct hand in over 30 goals in two seasons under Nagelsmann at Leipzig. He was also his captain. But he has yet to score or assist in 15 league outings since moving to Munich.
Watch: The best of Sabitzer in the Bundesliga
His versatility could now come in handy, though. He started last weekend on the right of the front three in a return to a 4-2-3-1 formation against Fürth, before dropping back deeper when Tolisso went off injured.
It is that box-to-box or even a holding role that became his home at Leipzig after being converted from a winger. Even not as the main playmaker, he still created the second most chances for Leipzig in 2020/21, so could easily slip into that Müller role, while also rotating among the front line. However, you’d expect him to be the deeper of the two if playing in the same side as Musiala, with Kimmich holding. That is unless Nagelsmann opts for just the one midfielder or pairs Kimmich with Marc Roca.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting
Now back from the Africa Cup of Nations, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting provides interesting alternatives for Nagelsmann. He is seen as an important member of the squad, binding different groups together. The 32-year-old may not seem a classic replacement for Müller, but he fulfils a number of roles on the pitch.
He has at times played wide, while on other occasions he has alternated with Lewandowski in the central striker position. The pair have shown they can play together. Bayern actually scored four with them both on the pitch in the second half against Fürth, with Lewandowski getting two and Choupo another.
They act as a traditional No.9 and 10, with two strikers playing off each other. Lewandowski in fact averages a goal every 45 minutes when both are on the pitch this season. It might not be a fair comparison given that Lewandowski has played more games with Müller than anyone else in his career, but the Pole averages a smidge under a goal a game from their time together on the field.
So, Choupo may seem like a bit of a left-field pick, but Bayern – and crucially, Lewandowski – seem to function with him in the side.
What does it all mean for formations, then? Well, if we’re being honest, it could be anything under Nagelsmann, Der Tinkermann. The tactical flexibility that he instils in his teams makes every line-up a bit of a guessing game. And even when you’ve figured it out, he’ll change mid-game.
Over the course of this season, Bayern’s average line-up based on playing time has been a 4-2-3-1 of Neuer – Pavard, Süle, Hernandez, Davies – Kimmich, Goretzka – Gnabry, Müller, Sane – Lewandowski.
But even that has been flexible within matches. And as he has had time to work on things further, he has felt comfortable going for a back three. Since the turn of the year, he has gone for more of a 3-2-4-1 of Ulreich (due to Manuel Neuer’s enforced absences) – Pavard, Süle, Hernandez – Kimmich, Tolisso – Gnabry, Müller, Sane, Coman – Lewandowski.
Those have worked in part because of how freely Müller moves, drawing in defenders, escaping, and creating space for others.
By the end of the Fürth game, the average formation had morphed into something along the lines of a 3-3-3-1, with Lewandowski actually off Choupo-Moting and playing close to Müller.
The fact is that Müller is irreplaceable for Bayern, but Nagelsmann has to pull a rabbit out of his tactical hat given he could be out for two games, assuming no further complications like we’ve seen with Alphonso Davies. We might be able to get the names of the 11 players who feature on Saturday in Frankfurt, but there could easily be a twist as to how they line up.
And there is also the added point of Müller’s general presence on the pitch. He’s been nicknamed ‘Radio Müller’ for how much he shouts orders on the pitch, advising teammates. He’s the on-field leader even when Neuer has the armband. With both of them now missing, there’s a bit of a power vacuum where somebody has to step up.
Kimmich has skippered Germany in the absence of both, while Lewandowski has taken on the position this season when neither Neuer nor Müller were on the pitch. Such is the importance of Müller’s presence, leadership will be a point discussed among the squad ahead of the game as they look to avoid a repeat of last season’s defeat in Frankfurt without the one-club man.
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