Why Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller Is the Complete Modern Footballer

Clark Whitney@@Mr_BundesligaFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2015

Bayern's Thomas Mueller, right, celebrates with fans as the team celebrate winning the Bundesliga title after the German first division Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and FSV Mainz 05 at the Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany, Saturday, May 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Associated Press

Thomas Muller may have won fewer trophies last season than he had in the previous two campaigns, but on an individual level, the Bayern Munich man had one of the best seasons of his career.

He doesn't get the headlines of teammates such as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, but no Bayern player contributed directly to more goals than the Germany international in the last campaign, as has been the case in four of Muller's six professional seasons thus far.

Now aged 25, Muller is in his physical prime. He's already had a brilliant career to date and looks destined for much more greatness, both individually and collectively, before he hangs up his boots. And it's all because Muller is the complete modern footballer.

"Complete" is a term that is often used in football and has been used to describe many rather different footballers. In Muller's case, his completeness is as an attacking player, one who does everything necessary in the final third both with and without the ball.

As a producer of goals, either by assisting or directly scoring, Muller is perhaps the best and most consistent player Bayern have had in decades. Per Transfermarkt, he's already recorded 120 goals and 105 assists in his still-young career. His sum of goals and assists has never been less than 31 in a season, his consistency exceeding even Robben and Ribery.

Whereas Robben is typically much more of a scorer and Ribery much more of a provider, Muller's numbers speak of a player who is flexible enough to take on either role. He knows when to shoot and how to finish but is a very generous player and has the vision to create opportunities for his teammates. There's something to be said for such versatility.

Raw figures of offensive output may speak well for Muller, but are only the beginning. In terms of playing style, Muller has labeled himself a "raumdeuter," relayed by Suddeutsche Zeitung, which best translates from German as "space interpreter." What he means by this is that he is the type of player who sees space on the pitch and uses it to his advantage. His focus is less on the ball movement and more on his own placement and vector relative to those of the others on the pitch.

Consider his assist to Lukas Podolski against England at the 2010 World Cup, in which he plays a one-touch pass before turning to make a run behind an English defense that had been stretched out of shape by the positioning of Mesut Ozil and Miroslav Klose. Muller got a step ahead of Ashley Cole and, upon receiving the ball, had a rather simple task to set up the goal. But it would never have happened had he not made the quick decision to pass and run.

Or consider his goal against Cologne in 2012: His cheeky finish was dazzling, but the most interesting part was his decision to step over the pass and let the ball run to Rafinha for the assist. Many players would have attacked the ball immediately, but Muller's understanding that his teammate would create a better scoring opportunity required real finesse and incredible spatial instincts.

When out of possession, Muller never stops running. Not only does he make the right moves to free space for teammates and put himself in position to score, but he is also a tireless and selfless defender. His willingness to track back and harry opposing midfielders was critical to Bayern's treble success in 2013.

Muller's style is rarely flashy but always extremely functional. He's an athlete who can do almost anything on the pitch and doesn't seem to confine himself to any certain characteristics, which makes him impossible to predict. As Germany coach Joachim Low put it last year, reported by FIFA.com:

"He is a very unorthodox player and you can't really predict his lines of running, but he has one aim and that is: 'How can I score a goal?' That makes him so dangerous, especially in the box."

What Muller lacks in number of successful dribbles and highlights reels that feature him receiving a long, cross-field ball with the softest of touches, he makes up for with his rather enormous trophy haul.

Some can speak of mind-boggling statistics, but there really aren't any metrics to capture the brilliance of Muller. Yet his achievements speak volumes: He's won the Bundesliga four times, the DFB-Pokal on three more occasions, the DFB-Superpokal twice, the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, the Club World Cup and the World Cup. Quite simply, he wins games. And when he doesn't, he often does just about everything that could be asked of him.

Take, for instance, his goal to put Bayern ahead of Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League final. That late strike should have won Bayern the trophy, but Muller was substituted in the closing moments of regular time and Bayern conceded the equalizer seconds later.

He was unable to score the winner in extra time, nor could he participate in the penalty shootout that Bayern lost. Yet his goal, which the likes of Robben and Ribery couldn't manage to score, was a huge sign of Muller's calmness under pressure. As were his three goals against Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals the following year.

As great as he's been for Bayern, it isn't only at club level that Muller has produced on the biggest stage. The Germany international finished the 2010 World Cup with more goals for an under-21 player since Pele, his five strikes and three assists propelling him to the Golden Boot and Best Young Player awards as the Nationalmannschaft finished a surprise third, their defeat to eventual champions Spain only coming in Muller's absence.

Four years later in Brazil, Muller equalled his previous tally while claiming the Silver Boot and Silver Ball awards as Germany won the World Cup for the first time in 24 years. He now has 10 goals at World Cups, just six behind Miroslav Klose's tournament record. And at just 25 years of age, the attacking all-rounder has at least one or two more tournaments left in him.

Whether for club or country, in a central role or out wide, Muller typically finds a way to get the job done. It's an underappreciated characteristic these days, as many stars are only able to truly produce at club level.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have competed in a combined six World Cups, yet neither has scored even once in the knockout rounds. By contrast, half of Muller's 10 goals in football's most celebrated tournament have come after the group stage. Just as he's a capable scorer with any part of his body, he's able to translate his skill and class in any situation.

On balance, Muller's consistent goal-and-assist output, his propensity to have an effect in the moments that matter most, his wide range of talents and his already sizable trophy count make him a unique player in world football. He's already achieved so much, and he still has a very long time to go before hanging up his boots. Amid a sea of specialists, he is truly the model of the complete modern footballer.



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