"Muller always plays." The phrase, uttered by Louis van Gaal back in 2010, per Focus (in German), has been true for Thomas Muller since he established himself in the Bayern Munich first team under the Dutchman's tutelage in the 2009/10 Bundesliga campaign, during which he played every game.
The eternal truth of the expression is being tested under Carlo Ancelotti, however. Muller, a Bavaria-born pillar of Bayern both on and off the pitch, has made just five starts in eight league appearances this season.
Clearly, Ancelotti still rates him—Muller has started all four of Bayern's UEFA Champions League games to date—but there is no doubt the Germany international's name on the teamsheet is not as certain as it once was, and not merely due to the inevitable squad rotation employed by his boss.
The reason: He just cannot score right now.
Only serial net-busters Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang found the net more times than Muller last season as he struck a personal best 20 goals in the Bundesliga campaign. He got seven more in Bayern's triumphant DFB Pokal run and four in the UEFA Champions League.
His stats make for far more uncomfortable reading this term: not a single goal in the Bundesliga nor the DFB Pokal and two in the Champions League. All you need to do is Google Torflaute (German for "goal drought") with Muller's name and you will see just what a tizz media in his home country is getting into.
The man himself is also becoming a little irritated. Known for his joviality and self-deprecation—check out any of the myriad advertising campaigns he has been involved in—Muller was only on the slightly sunnier side of fuming when he left the Allianz Arena following Saturday's 1-1 Bundesliga draw with TSG Hoffenheim.
"The s--t is sticking to my boots a bit," he stated to media, per Stern (in German), poetically referring to how he missed two late chances after coming off the bench with 21 minutes remaining, before uncharacteristically adding: "I'm in quite a bad mood."
As he stomps off to brood over his troubles, he should console himself with the fact that it isn't all his fault. If indeed it is his fault at all.
He should speak to Edinson Cavani. Ancelotti had just left Paris Saint-Germain for Real Madrid when the Uruguay international arrived in the French capital from Napoli in summer 2013, but Cavani will have a lot of sympathy for what Muller is going through under the Italian tactician.
A mightily successful central striker who plundered 29 goals to finish Serie A top scorer in his final season in Italy, Cavani was used in a wide position in the front three of the 4-3-3 formation employed by Ancelotti's successor, Laurent Blanc.
That strategy was adopted to accommodate the particular talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ancelotti has a similar difficulty with Lewandowski, who also has to play centrally, so Muller is exiled to a wide position. Not only that, it is further forward than he played in the 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 utilised to such success by Guardiola.
This handicaps him in two ways. Muller would undoubtedly love to have the pace (if not the glass hamstrings and adductors) of Arjen Robben to be able to beat his man one-on-one. But he does not. Isolated on the flank, he is second-choice and second-best to not only Robben but also Douglas Costa, Franck Ribery and Kingsley Coman.
On the other hand, the fragile Robben would surely love to have his team-mate's wiry, seemingly indestructible frame. "He never gets injured, because he doesn't have any muscles," the perpetually treatment room-bound Robben joked some years ago, per Bild (in German).
Fit he may be, but Muller's flyweight physique means he is not great at holding the ball up with his back to goal in the way Lewandowski does so brilliantly. Being further up the pitch, Muller receives the ball more often facing Manuel Neuer than the opposition goalkeeper—hardly the ideal position to score goals from nor even use his ability to spot a killer pass.
Asked once to define his game, Muller invented an expression: Raumdeuter, an interpreter of space, per the Guardian's Uli Hesse. To best display that uncanny ability to find that precious football commodity, space on the pitch, he needs to be able to see it in front of him.
That is where Ancelotti comes in. If he persists with 4-3-3, then Muller will surely be nothing more than a luxury item on the substitutes' bench, used to enable the Bayern coach to shake up his tactics—as he did against Hoffenheim with the introduction of Muller for Arturo Vidal to go 4-2-3-1—or as a replacement of sorts for Lewandowski should injury strike Bayern's only true out-and-out striker.
That seems a sad waste of Muller's immense abilities, and perhaps Ancelotti will use both players, as he suggested in pre-season, per Focus (in German): "The team is used to playing 4-3-3, but we could also go 4-4-2."
Muller can also console himself with the fact that all strikers go through periods when the goals dry up. Ancelotti is familiar with the problem, as he was at Chelsea when Fernando Torres arrived and took 13 games to get his first goal—the same Fernando Torres who played for Atletico Madrid in last season's UEFA Champions League final.
On another day, Muller's firm header 10 minutes from time against Hoffenheim would have gone to either side of Oliver Baumann and probably ended in the net rather than in the 'keeper's gloves. His close-range miss in added time, when he struck a post when scoring looked easier, was symptomatic of a forward whose luck is out.
Muller's stats of 106 goals in 268 Bundesliga games suggest his goalscoring touch will return. "I had 10 games as a European Footballer of the Year without any goals," former Bayern striker and current CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said sagely post-match, per Stern (in German). "You simply have to work, work, work and then you score three goals again. It will come back soon, I can tell him."
Having said that, maybe Muller spoiled us last season. Or perhaps more accurately, he made us forget the kind of player he really is.
What he is not is an out-and-out goalscorer, a player obsessed with his personal statistics. "Goals are not my fuel," he said last summer when asked about his failure to hit the net for Germany during UEFA Euro 2016, per Sport1 (in German). "They're the special polish on a car that makes it look even better."
There is no doubt Muller is a top-of-the-range model, but the fact he has almost as many assists (90) as goals in his 268 Bundesliga games is telling. Though he got 20 goals last season, his previous best was 13, which he had achieved in each of the three previous seasons in Bayern colours.
In 2015/16, while he was praised for his impressive tally of league strikes, he only contributed seven assists. The season before, he teed up 15 goals for his team, in addition to scoring 13. In which campaign did he make the greater contribution?
As Ancelotti mulls over how best to use him, and the German media continue to worry whether Muller has run out of space to interpret, the man himself will not be rocking the Bayern barge.
"We need no discussion on that," Muller replied when asked whether he should have come off the bench sooner against Hoffenheim before giving further insight into how he thinks about the game, per Tagesspiegel (in German). "We are a team, there are more than 11."