When fans think of the premier footballers of the last decade, the names Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are ubiquitous. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is usually included in the mix, perhaps with Luis Suarez and a few others.
Until recently, Thomas Muller probably would not have been among the very elite class for many. But as he approaches the end of his seventh full year at senior level, it's become impossible to overlook the Bayern Munich and Germany man as a true phenomenon of the modern game, an elite footballer who deserves to be recognized in the league of Messi and Ronaldo.
A main cause for Muller taking so long to be recognized is that he is so unclassifiable. His role is so unorthodox, so unique that he really can't be compared to anyone. And complicating things is the fact that he appears to play differently, whether at Bayern or for Germany.
When he was first brought into his national team, Joachim Low used Miroslav Klose and occasionally Mario Gomez as the main striker. With Mesut Ozil a lock in the playmaking position behind the striker, Muller was used in a wide position with Lukas Podolski opposite.
This was an effective strategy, as Germany played to counterattack, and the wingers (who were very striker-like in characteristics) were able to work hard on the wings and defend before moving into any available central space when their side broke forward in possession.
It was a strategy that had worked for Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan in their treble-winning side, which employed natural striker Samuel Eto'o in a wide role. And Muller was devastating.
Muller's first three goals as a Germany international (all at the 2010 FIFA World Cup) came in situations in which the defense hadn't had time to settle and he had moved to a position typical of a striker, with no teammate in a more striker-like position at the time he scored.
The other two goals he scored at the World Cup demonstrated why his role would survive later on while Podolski would be phased out of the starting lineup.
Muller's header against Argentina and poacher's finish against Uruguay following a parried shot from distance were other dimensions to Muller's game that underlined the player's incredible instincts for goal and the threat he could pose from a wide range of different situations.
Low's Germany team has evolved since then, with Klose having retired and Gomez rarely starting at striker. Yet despite possible temptation to use Muller formally in the center forward position, Low has kept him wide right with Mario Gotze and even Ozil on occasion playing at "striker."
It might, perhaps, appear strange for such a goal-getter to be "relegated" to a wide role, yet Muller has consistently scored even as Germany have evolved. With master technicians like Toni Kroos in midfield and with opponents more wary of their quality, Germany keep much more of the ball now than in 2010.
They counter when possible, but Muller has had to become much more poacher-like: Nowadays he scores less often from the counter, but much more from headers and redirecting low crosses from inside or near the six-yard box. Without a Klose or Gomez-type in the lineup, he needs to spend more time in the penalty area, and he does.
In not deploying Muller formally as a striker, Low has delivered a tactical masterstroke. Pep Guardiola at Bayern tried Muller as a center forward on occasion in previous years, with very mixed results. He's not quite physical enough to play at his best as a lone striker, and being the focal point of the attack mutes his ability to slip into space unnoticed.
When formally lined up as a winger, Muller can cut outside the full-back's zone and into that of a center-back without the latter noticing. And having Gotze and Ozil as central players in and around the penalty area, Germany can make sure not too much attention is paid to Muller.
It's worked time and time again, and that's why Muller still scores. And at the defensive end, the fact that Germany play a double pivot allows Muller's wing position to be covered by a holding midfielder in the event that his side lose possession.
For Bayern, Muller's role is different. He was indeed a winger at times earlier in his career but now is quite decidedly fixed on a central role just off main striker Robert Lewandowski. With Bayern's creativity coming from the wings in the form of Douglas Costa and Franck Ribery, there is no overlap between Muller as a central player and the playmaker. And with Lewandowski as the primary target, Muller can look for space in a congested central area.
In previous years, Guardiola's Bayern played an extremely possession-heavy tactical game and didn't rely on pace to counter, making it more difficult for Muller to use his best talents and score. His goals:assists ratio was nearly 1:1 last season, with 21 goals to 18 assists.
In the current campaign, in which Guardiola has embraced the German model of using speed to transition play from defense to attack, his record stands at 28 goals and 12 assists.
Muller's goals:assists ratio is higher this year in part because the Bavarians are getting fewer goals from Costa and his wing opposites than they did from Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben in previous years. Thus, Muller has been used more for scoring purposes.
In this regard, despite the difference in formal positioning, Muller has become more similar in function for Germany and Bayern as of late. Since the 2014 World Cup, when Klose's ability to score was starting to wane and the idea of a "false" striker was becoming more and more a tactic that Low would rely upon, Muller has scored 14 goals but given just five assists. Previously, his record stood at 17 goals and 22 assists.
By now, it seems Muller is actually becoming more like himself than ever before. He was a great player from an early age and played whatever role was necessary. It's a great talent of his to be able to adapt to any situation, and the evidence of that is clear when noting how consistently brilliant he is for both Germany and Bayern, whereas other greats of today's game suffer at least a moderate downturn when they leave their clubs for international duty.
But because Muller now is decidedly the best scorer for Germany and no less a superstar at Bayern than any of his club teammates, he's being used in the role that suits him best: Scoring goals, in whatever way possible.
Whether lined up formally on the right or centrally behind a main striker, his style of play is similar in effect and devastating in any case.