Thomas Müller has been called many things in his illustrious career to date, but only two words do him justice: world class.
To label Müller as anything else because he can look a touch ungainly would be like downplaying the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s regal pre-historic standing on account of its short arms. Players don’t chow down on 129 goals and 167 Bundesliga assists, polishing off 10 Bundesliga titles, six DFB Cups and two UEFA Champions Leagues along the way, without being top of the food chain. It’s just not possible.
Much of the Müller debate stems from his somewhat abstract position on the football pitch. The homegrown Bayern hero is a square peg that can’t be pigeon-holed, championing a style that has been leaving pundits and opposition players alike scratching their heads for over a decade. He is neither pure centre-forward, second striker, attacking midfielder nor winger - but a little bit of all four and much more besides. In his own words, he is a ‘Raumdeuter’ (space interpreter/ instigator/ invader).
“I don’t enjoy being classed as a striker, I don't see myself as one,” explained Müller, who joined Bayern as a 10-year-old in summer 2000, making his Bundesliga debut a month before his 19th birthday.
"I like to be active in the space in behind the opposition’s midfield. That’s where I can hurt the opponent most of all. I’m a mix between a striker and a midfielder. I’m a Raumdeuter. It’s about instinct.”
Müller’s nose for goal - or rather space - enabled him to sniff out 108 Bundesliga goals between 2010 and 2020. Only teammate Robert Lewandowski and Borussia Dortmund captain Marco Reus produced more, while he leads the way for assists with a mind-bending count of 145 across the same decade and into 2020. He set a new single-season record of 21 in 2019/20, and has a further 18 in 2020/21. More than a third of them since 2014 have furnished Lewandowski.
"It’s easier with Thomas next to me," Lewandowski has said time and again of his preferred right-hand man. "He helps me out a lot; we complement each other very well.
"Thomas is always heading towards the opposition goal, with a lot of movement. We always have one player more in the penalty area when he plays, I have more space and not always two or three opponents against me.”
The mechanics of the Müller effect are simple enough - quick passes, fewer touches, well-timed runs and clinical execution - but the devil is in the detail.
Preying on the positional limitations of opposition defenders, the Bayern No. 25 hugs the offside line, often to the point of being parallel to its outside edge, rarely spilling over. Statistically, he is called back for offside once every two league games. The 100-time Germany international - a scorer of 10 FIFA World Cup goals and 2014 winner no less - roams free, exploiting his strengths as a dyed-in-the-wool opportunist rather than the tactical system he is part of. It’s one small step for Müller, but one giant leap for Bundesliga defenders.
“The key is the timing between the person who plays the pass and the person making a run into the right zone,” Müller told Goal of his world-leading radar. “There are dangerous areas in football that, if you take the time to study them, you learn what hurts the opposition defence the most. Often it’s runs between the lines, at just the right time.
"It’s always been one of my greatest strengths: my positional play without the ball in-between the lines and into those deep areas in the final third. There’s really nothing that mysterious about it.”
Mystique - perhaps not; unparalleled anticipation - no question. At his most dangerous, Müller plays with his back to goal or in a side-on position. He has an uncanny ability to assess the pattern of the play and shape its next phase by constantly making runs to eke out space among the opposition rearguard and provide an alternative passing option.
He has played in front of some of the most cultured pass-masters in the business, but spies openings even the likes of Thiago Alcantara might have missed - or at least processes them first. A sneaky hand signal coupled with a calculated winding run is all it takes to turn a promising incursion into a decisive one.
“It boils down to positional play, speed of thought and confidence in your own abilities,” Müller continued. “I wouldn’t say I am ‘unusual’. The only thing ‘unusual’ is my overall package, if you look at my individual technical skills.
"I have good technique, but I’m not much of a dribbler. There are strikers who have a better shot on them, or are faster. What’s unusual is, despite those weaknesses, I made it to the top because other aspects of my game appear to be so good.
"That’s what no one seems to understand. Rather than think about what kind of footballer [I am], they ask themselves how this footballer can play in such a successful Bundesliga team and not a ‘normal Bundesliga team’ or how he can top-score at World Cups and that kind of thing - not why?”
Watch: Thomas Müller's first 100 Bundesliga goals
A big reason for the lack of recognition is that there simply isn’t a metric capable of quantifying Müller’s overall contribution.
Although the 31-year-old makes and take chances with alarming regularity - 252 goals and 254 assists in over 680 competitive appearances for club and country to be precise - it’s what he does off the ball, in the moments prior to the incoming pass or shot, that separate him from the field. And while there’s evidence of the historic use of the concepts of perimeter and circumference as far back as ancient Babylon, there’s still no way of measuring how space is created and its quality.
Thomas Müller Theorem may never come to fruition, but players will always find a way to reach the pinnacle of the game. They just won’t get there in the same way as the first, and conceivably last, Raumdeuter.
Perhaps in a galaxy not so far away, Bayern’s world-class space invader will get the credit he deserves.