Thomas Müller has always been a curious player. Not an out and out centre-forward but the owner of 10 FIFA World Cup goals; a right attacker without the pace or trickery of others in the role; A Raumdeuter (an interpreter of space, roughly) according to the man himself. But if Bayern Munich’s opening-day 3-1 win over Hoffenheim is anything to go by, Müller might just be the champions’ best central midfielder…
That may appear to be quite some claim considering the midfielders Bayern have on their books, even accounting for Arturo Vidal’s transfer to Barcelona. James Rodriguez is one of the world’s most talented players, and got better and better the deeper he played last season. Leon Goretzka signed on from Schalke in the summer, meanwhile, joining a stable of talent which also boasts Thiago Alcantara, Corentin Tolisso and the returning Renato Sanches.
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And yet when Niko Kovac came to selecting his first starting line-up in the Bundesliga as Bayern coach, Müller was front and centre… well, centre at least. Robert Lewandowski led the line against Hoffenheim; Kingsley Coman occupied the right flank before an ankle injury saw him replaced by Arjen Robben, who stayed out there for the second half. Müller, meanwhile, was tucked inside all game, beside Thiago in a midfield triangle with Javi Martinez at its base.
Julian Nagelsmann had said before kick-off that Hoffenheim planned to challenge Bayern both on the opening day and for top honours come the end of the season, but his five-man midfield suggested a policy of containment was first in his thoughts at the Allianz Arena. If not for Müller, it might have worked.
Müller’s goal came on 23 minutes, a bullet header having eluded his markers to meet a Joshua Kimmich corner. His slide-rule assist for Robben late on put the game beyond doubt after Adam Szalai and Lewandowski had exchanged goals. Two simple, yet undefendable, actions, from a player who works harder than anyone to make such things possible.
The Hoffenheim match was Müller’s first chance to set the record straight, and how he seized the opportunity. His runs from deep proved impossible to pick up for a Hoffenheim defensive bank which sometimes numbered eight players. Müller didn’t simply interpret the space ahead of him, he positively dominated it. No Bayern player matched his seven-and-a-half miles covered, while his 12 challenges won were also a team-high.
“We had better control of the match when Goretzka and James came on,” Müller humbly asserted in the post-match mixed zone. But there was little doubt who the game-changer was.
Another number worth bearing in mind? Müller has now scored five opening-day goals, second only to Lewandowski’s seven among active players. In each of those five seasons, Müller has gone on to score in the double digits. A haul of 20 Bundesliga goals under Pep Guardiola in 2015/16 was followed by tallies of five and eight in the previous two campaigns…
Statistical quirks may mean history is on Müller’s side, but the Raumdeuter’s interpretation of space and time mean that betting against him reaching those previous heights – perhaps even the hallowed 20-goal mark – would not be safe. Even if he plays the whole season bang in the middle of the park. Just ask Hoffenheim.