Thomas Müller: the best player in the world without the ball?


Thomas Müller, at the tender age of 28, has now completed 400 – yes, four hundred – competitive games for Bayern Munich. takes a closer look at the player who might just be the best in the world without the ball…

The fastest player at Bayern? That honour goes to Kingsley Coman. The most skilful? Speak to the players and they'll likely suggest one from Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Thiago Alcantara and James Rodriguez. The best eye for goal? Robert Lewandowski

Watch: All 12 of Müller's assists in 2016/17!

Yet with a gait equal parts awkward and deceptive, Müller has quietly crept past yet another landmark for the Bavarians. Only namesake Gerd Müller (552) and club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (218) have scored more times for the record champions than Müller (161) since the Bundesliga's foundation in 1963, and Bayern have still never lost a league game in which Müller has scored.

Thomas Müller was involved everywhere in the 2017/18 opener against Bayer Leverkusen. - © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA

Müller worried recently that he didn't feature too heavily in Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti's plans. "Obviously my qualities are not entirely wanted," he said after failing to start the Bavarians' 2-0 win at Werder Bremen on Matchday 2. "I don't know what the coach expects of me."

Perhaps it was an overreaction from a player who has only missed 19 Bundesliga games since his debut under Louis van Gaal in August 2008. Müller took just two minutes to assist Lewandowski against the Green-Whites after coming on for Ribery, and had arguably been Bayern's best player for much of their two previous games, in which they beat Borussia Dortmund to lift the Supercup before opening the 2017/18 campaign with a 3-1 dismissal of Bayer Leverkusen.

Müller may not have been on the scoresheet himself in the three fixtures above, but ask Dan-Axel Zagadou, Dortmund's new France Under-19 full-back, or Wendell - his Brazilian counterpart at Leverkusen - who the best player on the pitch was and their answer could be only one man. Müller repeatedly dragged Zagadou inside from left-back in the Supercup, creating the space for Joshua Kimmich to overlap into to supply most of Bayern's chances. Zagadou was subbed off on 77 minutes after his toughest work out in professional football.

Müller's heat-map against Leverkusen accentuates how deadly the forward's positioning and reading of space can be. He only touched the ball 22 times against Die Werkself - Kimmich enjoyed 68 - but it is clear that despite starting on the right flank, he spent most of his time as a second striker, pulling Bayer coach Heiko Herrlich's carefully crafted formation out of position just as he had done to Peter Bosz's two weeks previously.

"The players who tend to make the difference are often great dribblers," Müller told The Guardian in February 2016. "Some are very fast, others have a repertoire of moves and feints. These players need to have great technique in order to be good dribblers. But I’m not a good dribbler. One-on-one situations are not my strong suit."

And it is precisely this supposed shortcoming that helps make Müller unique. Just as David Beckham used to cross early so as to negate his inability to race past his man, so Müller picks his passes early and drifts between the lines to evade his markers. Only RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg, with 19, had more assists in the Bundesliga than Müller's 12 last term, while each of his last 26 Bundesliga goals have been scored inside the opponents' box, despite the fact Müller starts games wider and deeper than Lewandowski, who leads the line.

Libero, False 9, Trequartista - all positional terms that have gravitated from football hipster parlance to mainstream tactical vocabulary in recent years. The main proponents of the positions - Franz Beckenbauer, Lionel Messi, Francesco Totti et al - will go down in history as some of the greatest players to play the game. Their style was and is difficult to define, and it is perhaps fitting that Müller coined his own term for his unique take on the game. "Ich bin ein Raumdeuter," he said in the months after helping Germany to third at the 2010 World Cup - "I'm an interpreter of space."

And there is none better. Müller went one further in Brazil in 2014, helping his country to their first World Cup triumph since 1990, scoring five goals at FIFA's showpiece for the second consecutive tournament - becoming only the second player to do so after Peru's Teofilo Cubillas in 1978.

Müller remains a unique proposition in world football. Ancelotti shouldn’t be so much expecting of Müller as rejoicing at having him on the books.

Quiz: Test your Müller knowledge below!

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