Manchester United's Class of '92 have long since retired; Lionel Messi is no longer a Barcelona player... and he was born 6,500 miles away in Rosario anyway. So, bundesliga.com trains the microscope on Bayern Munich forward Thomas Müller, perhaps the last one-club man to blossom into a world-class talent just up the road from where he was born...
There's more to being Müller than being Bavarian, of course, but it definitely helps - that much is obvious when he does the rounds of the FCB supporters' clubs in the run-up to Christmas. Born in Weilheim, young Thomas grew up in the small village of Pähl, around 30 miles southwest of Munich. He joined Bayern as a 10-year-old in the summer of 2000, and quickly set about climbing through the club ranks. He enjoyed a breakout season with the U19s in 2007/08, hitting 18 goals in 26 games - and catching the eye of then head coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
"I didn't pick up the phone at first," Müller admitted, when the 1990 FIFA World Cup winner called to announce his promotion to the first team squad. "But when I listened to my voicemail later, it was Jürgen Klinsmann."
Müller made his Bundesliga debut a month before his 19th birthday, coming on as a late substitute for Miroslav Klose against Hamburg on the opening day in 2008/09. Now, more than a decade later, he has made nearly 600 senior appearances for the club - but back then, nothing hinted at the remarkable career path that lay in store.
Watch: Müller's extraordinary journey from Pähl to the pinnacle of world football...
Impressing Van Gaal
After that fleeting cameo against HSV, Müller spent the remainder of the season with the reserves, netting an impressive 15 goals in the third tier. He was recalled to the first team in the latter stages of the campaign, making another three substitute appearances, but it was only in 2009/10 that he really began to make a name for himself.
Klinsmann left Bayern and was replaced by Louis van Gaal, who instantly recognised Müller's immense potential. Incredibly - for someone with just 28 minutes of top-flight football under his belt - Müller featured in every single game of the season, repaying Van Gaal's faith with 13 goals and 10 assists as Bayern completed a Bundesliga and DFB Cup double.
"Even if Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are available, Müller will always play in my team," Van Gaal famously said at the time. To this day, Müller credits the Dutch tactician with playing a crucial role in his development.
"He threw me in at the deep end," the Bayern forward explained to Goal in 2016. "I made my debut before he arrived, but he then relied on me continually. For us players, it's difficult to talk about coaches while we're still active. But I would say that my biggest influence was Louis van Gaal, because I was at the best age to be influenced."
Voted Germany's Young Player of the Year and included in the Bundesliga Team of the Season, Müller was ready to take his newfound status global. He made just his third appearance for Die Mannschaft in the 2010 FIFA World Cup opener against Australia, scoring his first international goal and laying on another for Lukas Podolski in a 4-0 win.
Two more goals and an assist came in the last-16 dismissal of England, followed by the opener in the quarter-final thrashing of Argentina. Agonisingly, Müller missed the semi-final defeat against Spain due to suspension, but returned to score his fifth goal of the tournament as Germany pipped Uruguay to third place. At just 20 years of age, Müller flew home from South Africa with the Golden Boot and a growing reputation as one of world football's new wunderkinds on the block.
Champions League heartbreak and heroics
After extending his contract with Bayern through to 2015, Müller continued to flourish, notching up 21 goals and 28 assists over the next two seasons. But success began to prove elusive for the record champions. Not only did they fail to lift the Bundesliga crown in that period - with Borussia Dortmund claiming back-to-back titles under Jürgen Klopp - they also struggled to establish their supremacy on the continent.
In May 2012, the stage was perfectly set. Bayern welcomed Chelsea to the Allianz Arena for the UEFA Champions League final, looking to erase a 2-0 defeat to Inter Milan in the 2010 showpiece. In the 83rd minute, Müller broke the deadlock with a close-range header, a goal which looked sure to secure Bayern their fifth European crown - and scored by a Bavarian, no less. But it was not to be - Didier Drogba equalised minutes later, and the English side eventually triumphed on penalties.
Many observers described the defeat as worse than the 1999 Champions League final, when Manchester United scored twice in injury time to snatch the trophy away from Bayern. But from the ashes of their agonising loss on home soil, Jupp Heynckes' side rose like a phoenix to enjoy the most successful campaign of any side in German footballing history in 2012/13, culminating in a historic treble of Bundesliga, DFB Cup and that long-awaited Champions League.
"We have to win," Müller warned ahead of the first all-German final against Dortmund at Wembley. "If you lose three finals in four seasons you are going to be labelled chokers. We could win a lot in London - but we could lose a lot, too."
Luckily for Bayern, win they did - and while it was Robben who had the honour of netting the decisive goal at Wembley, Müller finished the European campaign as Bayern's top scorer with eight goals - including three in the 7-0 aggregate win over Barcelona in the semi-finals. The self-styled Raumdeuter also contributed 13 goals and 13 assists in the Bundesliga, plus a goal and an assist in the 3-2 DFB Cup final win over VfB Stuttgart.
The Space Interpreter
Raumdeuter - or 'interpreter of space' - was a term that Müller himself coined in a fascinating 2011 interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. How else to describe such an unorthodox and unwieldy forward player? Though he boasts few of the skills prized by world-class frontmen - dribbling, long-range shooting, fancy footwork - Müller's reading of the game is unparalleled, and his ability to eke out pockets of space for himself and teammates is central to his game. He has perfected the art of being in the right place at the right time, with or without the ball.
"I understand that many find it hard to get me as a player," he once told The Observer. "They say: 'Impossible, how did he do that?' But at some point, they maybe started thinking: 'Oh, he's quite good after all!'"
Müller's position has been a source of curious debate for many years, but the bottom line is that when he plays, goals happen. In his 13 full Bundesliga seasons, the Pähl native has reached double figures on seven occasions in terms of goals, and 11 in terms of assists. In total, he has racked up 131 goals and 171 assists in 390 top-flight appearances - and amazingly, Bayern have lost just one of the 105 league games in which he has found the back of the net.
"Thomas always scored goals, in training and in games," recalled legendary youth coach Hermann Gerland, the man who recommended Müller to Klinsmann. "He wasn't ready to play consistently well over 90 minutes, but he provided goals! And that's the most important thing in football."
Watch: Is Müller the best in the world without the ball?
So how would Müller - not necessarily the most comfortable with the ball at his feet - fit into the possession-based system of Pep Guardiola, who arrived in Bavaria at the start of the 2013/14 season? Very nicely indeed, as it turned out.
Demonstrating his tactical flexibility, Müller eventually tucked in from the right flank - where he was chiefly used by Heynckes in the treble-winning season - but continued to provide goals on a regular basis, scoring 13 and setting up 11 as Bayern defended their league title in 2013/14.
On top of the world
The summer of 2014 would see Müller join the hallowed inner circle of players to have won the Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup - joining former Bayern legends such as his namesake Gerd Müller, Franz Beckenbauer and Uli Hoeneß. Germany travelled to Brazil as one of the tournament favourites - and there was far greater expectation surrounding Müller, as winner of the 2010 Golden Boot. Neither would disappoint.
Müller repeated his performance from South Africa with five more goals, including a hat-trick in the first game against Portugal and the opener in the incredible 7-1 demolition of hosts Brazil in the semi-finals. Club teammate Mario Götze may have got the winning goal in the final against Argentina, but Müller's top-scoring contribution for the world champions was recognised as he finished fifth in that year's FIFA Ballon d'Or vote.
"Müller is a natural talent," Germany coach Joachim Löw said. "He has played brilliantly since 2010. He has both feet on the ground and can deal with praise or criticism, success or failure, better than almost anyone. I've never doubted him, and of course he has a nose for goals."
Müller kept proving his national coach right throughout 2014/15, where he could now count on former Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski as a foil in attack. Whether used out wide or more centrally, he thrived under Guardiola, continuing to ghost between the lines and exploit space in inimitable ways.
He enjoyed his most prolific season in 2015/16. Playing deeper and to the right of Lewandowski in a 4-2-3-1, Müller notched up no fewer than 20 goals in the Bundesliga and 32 in all competitions. The Poland striker fared even better, scoring 42 times, as the two men contributed 74 goals towards Bayern's Bundesliga and DFB Cup double.
Bayern underwent another managerial change in 2016/17, with Carlo Ancelotti replacing Guardiola, but the ever-present Müller continued to play a key role in attack, once again showing his chameleon-like ability to adapt to different systems and coaches. Under the Italian he reverted to a more altruistic role, scoring only five goals in the Bundesliga but conjuring up 16 assists.
"He's atypical because he's a great forward with an unorthodox skill set," Ancelotti told ESPN. "We expect great forwards to be outstanding in terms of athleticism, technique or creativity. Instead, his strength is tactical, in that ability to read the game and fill the right space at the right time."
While Ancelotti was initially effusive in his praise, the relationship between the Italian and the dressing room began to sour as time went by. When Müller was dropped to the bench against Werder Bremen early in 2017/18, he wasn't shy about voicing his displeasure.
"Obviously my qualities are not entirely wanted," he pointedly observed. "I don't know what the coach expects of me."
Ancelotti was relieved of his duties in September 2017, after a chastening Champions League defeat against Paris Saint-Germain. Heynckes returned for a fourth stint at the helm, and suddenly Müller began to click back into gear. He was on target against Stuttgart and Dortmund, before hitting the milestone of 100 Bundesliga goals against Werder Bremen. Bayern roared back to win the league title with five games to spare, while Müller topped the assists chart by laying on 14 goals – 12 of them after being reunited with his former treble-winning coach.
Watch: Müller Top 5 Bundesliga goals
"Müller is the most extraordinary player in German football history, along with the great Gerd Müller," Heynckes told DFL Magazine in 2020, two years after leaving Bayern for the fourth and final time. "He is still showing the qualities that have always distinguished him: being a team player, hard-working and hard-running. On top of that he's a driving force on the pitch, which is now clearer than ever."
Despite that effusive praise, Müller was set to face some of his biggest challenges in a Bayern shirt following Heynckes' retirement at the end of 2017/18. Germany's poor showing at that summer's World Cup in Russia also compounded some of his problems at club level, especially when Löw made the shock announcement in March 2019 that Müller, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng would no longer be selected for Die Mannschaft.
Niko Kovac had been appointed as Heynckes' replacement, but Müller never really flourished under the former Bayern and Croatia midfielder. For the majority of his 16-month stint in charge, Kovac favoured a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Müller usually tucked into midfield alongside Leon Goretzka. With less freedom of movement, greater distance between him and Lewandowski and a certain degree of tactical confusion, Müller 'only' provided nine assists and six goals in the Bundesliga. A respectable return for most players, no doubt, but it was the first time in almost a decade that Bayern's No.25 had failed to hit double digits in one of the two metrics.
Müller was nevertheless a regular starter throughout 2018/19. He made Kovac's XI in 28 of 34 games in the Bundesliga, started all but one DFB Cup game, and only missed the Champions League last-16 defeat to Liverpool because of suspension, having picked up the first straight red card of his career against Ajax. Overall, Bayern had a strong campaign, winning yet another Bundesliga crown and easing past RB Leipzig 3-0 in the DFB Cup final.
Yet, as with Ancelotti, cracks began to appear in the relationship between Kovac and his dressing room. By the start of 2019/20, the former Eintracht Frankfurt boss was no longer adhering to Van Gaal's 'Müller will always play' ethos, dropping the club legend to the bench for a run of six consecutive games. Philippe Coutinho was admittedly performing well, but the treatment of such an influential figure clearly didn't sit well with other members of the squad. Serge Gnabry spoke out at one Germany camp, saying Müller "deserves a little more respect", and that it was "hard to imagine Bayern Munich without him."
It was perhaps the bleakest moment in Müller's long career with the club. He later admitted to Der Spiegel that it was the second time he had seriously considered leaving Bayern, following Manchester United's attempts to lure him to Old Trafford in 2015. But he stayed put, and everything changed after Bayern were hammered 5-1 in Frankfurt at the start of November. Kovac was shown the door and assistant coach Hansi Flick was given the top job, sparking a sensational turnaround for both Müller and the team.
Hansi flicks a switch
Flick had spent many years working as Löw's assistant with the Germany national team, so he knew Müller's game inside out and was perfectly aware of what he could bring to the table. His first game in charge set the tone: Müller played the full 90 minutes and provided two assists as Bayern thrashed title rivals Dortmund 4-0. Over the following weeks and months, he would become a central figure as Flick's men romped to another treble.
"You can't always grasp his playing style, but you can't quantify what he brings to the team and the club either," Flick recently said of Müller. "He's always positive, has the energy levels of an 18-year-old and spurs on all the players. You can only take your hat off to what he has achieved in his career – it's unique. There will never be anyone like him."
Flick restored Müller to his favoured position, a slightly freer forward role just behind Lewandowski, and the results were spectacular. By the end of 2019/20, Müller had notched eight goals and a staggering 21 assists, a new record in a single Bundesliga season. All those goals added up to a lot of wins: 29 in 30 outings between the middle of December and the back end of August, when Bayern avenged their previous defeat to PSG to win the Champions League for the sixth time. Perhaps the standout moment was the historic 8-2 victory over Barcelona – which had shades of Germany's 7-1 against Brazil – with Müller scoring twice and getting a late assist for Coutinho. A few months earlier, during lockdown, he had extended his contract with the record Bundesliga champions until 2023.
"I've been with Bayern for a good two-thirds of my life now, so you can't say the club and I are just along for the ride," Müller said when penning his new deal. "We fight for each other. This club is not just any old employer for me. It's my passion."
The Bundesliga GOAT?
Described as a "figurehead" by sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic and incoming CEO Oliver Kahn, Müller carried his fantastic form into 2020/21. He snatched a goal and an assist as Bayern began with an 8-0 drubbing of hapless Schalke and never looked back. With 31 starts, 18 assists and 11 goals, he once again played a major role in the Bavarians' conquest of a ninth consecutive Meisterschale, his 10th with the club. If he picks up an 11th Bundesliga winner's medal at the end of 2021/22, he will stand alone as the most decorated player in Bayern and league history, surpassing former teammate David Alaba. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to break the record," he once admitted to Sport Bild.
Müller's superb run did not go unnoticed over at DFB headquarters, with Löw finally recalling him to the Germany squad ahead of UEFA Euro 2020. Die Mannschaft were still a work in progress at the 2021 tournament – going out to finalists England in the last 16 – but they are likely to be a force to be reckoned with at the 2022 World Cup. Flick is now at the helm, and his excellent relationship with the team's Bayern-based stars is already helping to foster a positive, winning environment. Senior lieutenants like Müller, Manuel Neuer and Marco Reus are also dishing out advice to wunderkinds such as Jamal Musiala, Florian Wirtz and Karim Adeyemi, encouraging them to unlock their full potential.
If there is a man who knows a thing or two about playing to his strengths, it is certainly Müller, whose overall footballing ability sometimes seems greater than the sum of its parts. This is a player who broke into the Bayern first team in 2009/10 and has hardly left it since, only missing 29 Bundesliga games over the course of 12 seasons.
While other academy graduates like Philipp Lahm and Toni Kroos were sent out to cut their teeth on loan – or even sold, in the case of Hummels – Müller always stayed put, which has put him on course to reach the historic landmark of 600 competitive appearances for Bayern in late 2021. Only two players in the club's history have hit that milestone, and they were both goalkeepers: Kahn and Sepp Maier.
"Nobody could have predicted the career he's had," Gerland confided on Bayern's official website. "But he had the right club and the right coaches at the right time. And then he took his chance and put in very good performances."
Those performances have made Müller one of Bayern's all-time greats, a leader on and off the pitch – it's no surprise to see him donning the captain's armband on the rare occasions that Neuer is absent. The boy from Pähl continues to enjoy a glittering career with the club down the road, and there's no telling just how many pages of footballing history he will end up writing.
Winner of the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, Champions League, World Cup and Golden Boot, Thomas Müller is a world-class talent, genuinely unique – and he's Bayern to the bone.