Thomas Müller has been living and breathing Bayern Munich for as long as he has been able to kick a ball. - © © imago / Hartenfelser
Thomas Müller has been living and breathing Bayern Munich for as long as he has been able to kick a ball. - © © imago / Hartenfelser

Bayern Munich's Thomas Müller: World football's last hometown boy turned one-club wonder


Steven Gerrard, Francesco Totti and Paolo Maldini have all retired. Lionel Messi is a Barcelona legend, but he hails from 6,500 miles away in Rosario. So, trains the microscope on Bayern Munich forward Thomas Müller, perhaps the last player 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 50 kilometres from 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 Under-19s 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 a decade later, he has made over 450 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...

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."

- © imago / Ulmer/Cremer

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.

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 - 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.

- © imago / VI Images

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 Stuttgart.

- © imago / Xinhua

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 nine full Bundesliga seasons, the Pähl native has reached double figures on six occasions in terms of goals, and eight in terms of assists. In total, he has racked up 106 goals and 114 assists in 296 top-flight appearances - and amazingly, Bayern haven't lost any of the 84 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 - and who is now in charge of Bayern's new-look academy. "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.

The summer of 2014 would see Müller join the hallowed inner circle of players to have won the Bundesliga, Champions League and FIFA World Cup - joining former Bayern legends such as his namesake Gerd Müller, Franz Beckenbauer and current president 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.   

- © gettyimages / Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

"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 to date 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 started to click back into gear. He set up Lewandowski for the only goal of the game against Cologne on Matchday 16, before getting the winner himself against Stuttgart three days later. He also scored a delightful goal in the DFB Cup last-16 win over Dortmund, and made history with a brace and an assist against Werder Bremen on Matchday 19, ticking over to 100 Bundesliga goals.

"It's a nice milestone, but it's only temporary. I think I've still got a few more goals in me," he joked after the 4-2 victory.

The future certainly looks bright for Müller, who has now won seven Bundesliga titles with the Bavarian giants. At only 29, the one-club man has made no secret about his desire to surpass Bayern greats Mehmet Scholl, Oliver Kahn, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Franck Ribery, and their joint club record of eight domestic crowns.  

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to break the record," he admitted to Sport Bild. "My contract with Bayern runs until 2021, and if I haven't reached eight Bundesliga titles by then, something has clearly gone wrong."

Watch: Müller's first 100 Bundesliga goals

The way things are going, you wouldn't bet against Müller one day getting his hands on a ninth Meisterschale. Since breaking into the first team in 2009/10 he has hardly left it, only missing 24 Bundesliga games over eight and a half seasons. While other academy graduates like Lahm and Toni Kroos were sent out to cut their teeth on loan - or even sold, in the case of Mats Hummels - Müller always stayed put, which enabled him to reach the landmark of 450 competitive appearances for Bayern at the start of 2018/19. No member of the current squad has played more games.

"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 coach 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 dressing room leaders, and it was no surprise to see him regularly sporting the captain's armband in the absence of the injured Manuel Neuer last season. As he pursues his glittering career, there's no telling just how many pages of footballing history the 100-time Germany international will continue to write.

Winner of the Bundesliga, DFB Cup, UEFA Champions League, FIFA World Cup and Golden Boot, Thomas Müller is a world-class talent, genuinely unique - and he's Bayern to the bone.

Andy Smith

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