Produced over time with fine attention to detail and daily dedication, a completed work of art can be a visual representation of poetry in motion, a phrase that might also be apt to describe James Rodriguez and Thomas Müller, Bayern Munich’s grand masters of space.
The playing field their giant canvas, it was once believed these two footballing artists might be incompatible, some predicting their brush strokes would combine only to confuse the overall picture. In fact, when Colombian superstar James arrived at Bayern, such was ex-coach Carlo Ancelotti’s admiration for the 26-year-old’s talents, many felt Müller might have to make way. The German attacker even expressed his doubts as to how the arrangement would unfold.
"Obviously my qualities are not entirely wanted. I don't know what the coach expects of me," Müller said after entering the 2-0, Matchday 2 win against Werder Bremen as a late substitute.
Watch: James Rodriguez. Goals. Assists. Simple.
The top scorer at the 2014 FIFA World Cup with six goals, James enhanced his reputation as a formidable central attacking presence at the finals in Brazil, while at Real Madrid, many of his 22 goals in 77 La Liga appearances came while playing in wide positions.
Here was a player with a forward vision to frighten opponents in the final third, the ability to pick out an astute pass and a knack for netting key goals in games requiring a locksmith. And if those attributes sounded familiar, it’s because Müller possessed all of them.
Yet it was for Ancelotti that the numbers would eventually fail to add up, the Italian coach dismissed in September following several underwhelming results. For Rodriguez and Müller, an unlikely alliance under the visionary Jupp Heynckes was about to begin. In his first few days back with the Bundesliga giants, the 72-year-old tactician watched his Colombian closely, believing the former Porto and Monaco man could play deeper, and use his talent and vision from further back.
From there, it was possible James could not only search for open pockets of space, he could also find the spaces into which Müller adored to enter. "Ich bin ein Raumdeuter" or "I am a space interpreter," Müller once famously said. The experiment worked. Bayern found synergy, and the subsequent results were astounding.
Despite several untimely injury setbacks, James has featured in 20 Bundesliga games this term while Müller – who recently won his seventh Bundesliga title – has played 26, providing evidence to the sceptics who felt there was no room for both in the setup.
Fast forward on from comments following the Werder victory last August, and Müller was netting a double against the same opponents in the return fixture, with James providing the assist for one of those goals. Müller now has seven for the season, and can thank his South American teammate for setting up two of them.
Watch: James aiming for more trophies at Bayern!
"James is more of a playmaker who has many touches of the ball, who distributes the balls well and who has a good eye for the free space,” the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner Müller explained recently. “I was always a player who was looking for exactly this space and who is searching for the direct way to the goal. That's why we understand each other well since he came here."
That understanding can be interpreted in the strikingly similar stats both have posted. Of Bayern’s 81 goals to date, James has had a hand in 16, Müller 18. Both are second and third on the overall Bundesliga assist table this season, Müller’s 11 just trumping James’s ten while in terms of distance covered, it’s an equal average of seven miles per game and an almost identical top speed of 20 miles per hour.
There have been an identical 62 chances set up by each, showcasing their creative ability while their respective roles in Bayern’s build-up play has been crucial at times, also laying off what can be described as the pass before the key pass. Heynckes’ men have won every game in which James has scored while of the Colombian’s six goals and 10 assists, he has been directly involved in 11 goals in his last eight games. In Müller’s 19 matches under Heynckes, meanwhile, the self-confessed Raumdeuter has been directly involved in 14 goals, scoring six and setting up nine.
It’s an on-field relationship that has evolved beautifully, a well-sculpted piece entitled teamwork and something worthy of praise. "Thomas Müller is my best friend. He's also a great guy," James said of his Bayern playing partner, with the two looking set to flourish creatively long into the future.