Thomas Müller can’t beat you with his close ball control. He can’t beat you with his pace. And he can’t beat you with his dribbling skills. He just beats you.
Germany fell in love with Thomas Müller on June 27, 2010 — the day of the memorable World Cup encounter between old rivals Germany and England. It was deep into the second half and the 21-year-old attacking midfielder, who a year earlier had been a regular for Bayern Munich reserves in the third division, coolly finished off a picture-book counterattack to make it 3-1. Three minutes later, England were hit on the break again. And again it was Müller who put the last pass away from close range for a 4-1 final.
But those goals weren’t the reason Germany fell in love with the young man. That happened after the game. Müller was on German television, flashing his goofy but endearing smile. At last, the interviewer congratulated him once more on an outstanding performance and indicated the player was now free to join the festivities in the dressing room.
“Can I say ‘Hi’ to someone?” Müller asked.
Startled and amused, the reporter said yes, sure. Trying to locate the camera, Müller said, “I just wanted to send greetings to my two grandmas and my grandpa. That’s long overdue.” Then he waved into the camera like an overjoyed schoolboy who’s just won a spelling contest and knows his grandparents will be proud of him.
Needless to say, the next day the phone in the village of Pähl, 25 miles south of Munich, rang off the hook. Finally, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper got hold of 81-year-old Erna Burghart, one of Müller’s grandmas. She said she always lit a candle when Thomas played but had forgotten this time, which is why she was slightly surprised he’d scored nonetheless. Asked about the greetings on live television, she replied: “Nice, wasn’t it? Such a sweet boy.”
“I hadn’t planned this. I couldn’t, because I didn’t know I’d be scoring two goals and giving post-match interviews,” the sweet boy told Eight by Eight in an exclusive interview. Müller was relaxing in a hotel room in Frankfurt, where the national team had come together to prepare for a Euro 2016 qualifier in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland. “It was spontaneous. And I underestimated the whole thing. I had been part of the circus that is professional football for only one year and didn’t have much media experience. My grannies were besieged by the press. I just hadn’t considered that they might become the centre of attention because of all this.”
Müller’s gesture endeared him to the public. Amid the frenzy, the madness, and the parade of inflated egos in a massive global event like the World Cup, saying “hi” to your grannies seemed so, well, normal. And indeed today, five years and many trophies later, it’s still the first thing everyone remarks on when talk turns to Müller: He seems so normal. From his name – statistically the most common in Germany, which is why “Thomas Müller” is sometimes used to describe the ultimate average guy – right down to his looks.
Müller is the first to admit he has spindly legs and the sort of chest his former team-mate Bastian Schweinsteiger described as a “chicken breast”. His wife is not a model but an amateur dressage rider (and “a local girl,” as grandma Erna proudly told the press). Müller sports a nondescript hairdo and doesn’t have a single tattoo. When I asked him if there isn’t a lot of pressure in the dressing room to adopt the now-universal look, he said: “No, not at all. And even if there would be pressure, I’d be able to withstand it.” Then he added: “See, I just don’t give a lot of thought to these things. I just try not to pretend to be something I’m not.”
Even Müller’s game has the same earthy, no-nonsense quality to it. When Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi glide across the pitch and slither through defences with otherworldly grace, you marvel at their moves and feel honoured to be in the presence of such genius. When you watch Müller, you catch yourself thinking, I could probably do that too.
But of course you couldn’t. Hardly anyone can. That’s why Müller is one of the most valuable and coveted players in the world. Indeed, he might just be the most valuable of them all. It’s no secret that Manchester United have been targeting him.
In August, the British press speculated that they had made a £60m bid for his services. A few days later, Bayern’s chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, confirmed his club had received “a very high offer”. In September, Germany’s Kicker magazine – usually a reliable and reputable source – said United had been prepared to part with a stunning £88m for Müller. If so, United were willing to break the world transfer record – for an enigma.
That’s what Müller is: perhaps the most enigmatic player in the international game. It’s plain that he’s brilliant: at 26, he’s won the World Cup and the Champions League and has finished fifth at the Ballon d’Or. He was the top goalscorer at the 2010 World Cup and the second best four years later. In the past three Bundesliga seasons, he either scored or set up 79 goals. When Louis van Gaal was at Bayern, he famously said: “In my team, Müller always plays.” And when Van Gaal then tried to lure the player to Old Trafford, Rummenigge rebuffed all advances by declaring that Müller was not for sale. “There are some players who do not come with a price tag,” Rummenigge said. “We’d be mad if we let Müller leave.”
Yet it’s nearly impossible to explain what makes Müller brilliant. “I know that I make technical mistakes from time to time,” he said. “It’s one of the aspects of my game that I’ve been working on for years. I think I’ve managed to reduce the number of those technical mistakes to a minimum, but occasionally they happen. On the other hand, I do have moments of technical brilliance.”
He pondered a moment, then added: “The players who tend to make the difference are often great dribblers. Some are very fast, others have a repertoire of moves and feints. These players need to have great technique in order to be good dribblers. But I’m not a good dribbler. One-on-one situations are not my strong suit. Consequently, people think I’m not a good technician when in fact my technique is better than I’m often given credit for.”
In other words, Müller can’t beat you with his close ball control, he can’t beat you with his pace, and he can’t beat you with his dribbling skills. He just beats you. And he does so in a way that recalls a legendary namesake, Gerd Müller. They didn’t call the older Müller an enigma, but they referred to him as a phantom, or the Ghost of the Penalty Box. Gerd Müller would suddenly materialise at the exact right spot to pounce on a loose ball, nudge home a rebound, or bundle the ball across the line with some limb or other.
Thomas Müller has that same puzzling ability. Two days after our talk, he demonstrated it. Twelve minutes from time and with Germany down a goal in Dublin, his team mounted an attack through the left inside channel. For some reason, Müller moved away from the penalty area when Toni Kroos played a through ball to Mesut Özil. It was only when Özil gave the ball to left back Jonas Hector on the flank that Müller turned and jogged back into the box. Hector went to the byline and pulled the ball back for Marco Reus, who inexplicably missed it. Along with six Irish defenders, who were all positioned around the goalmouth, Reus looked to see where Hector’s cross would land. It landed near the penalty spot. The only player standing there was Thomas Müller. Even though the Irish were putting every man behind the ball and had been closely guarding Müller all game, he was now unmarked, in the middle of the opposition’s box, with acres of space around him.
Amazingly, it was Müller himself who came up with a marvellous turn of phrase to describe what makes him special. “Ich bin ein Raumdeuter,” he told a newspaper a few years ago – “I’m an interpreter of space”. When I congratulated him on this inventive coinage, he chuckled. “It’s a nice term, you’re right,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’ve done myself a favour with it, though. Every good, successful player, especially an attacking player, has a well-developed sense of space and time. It’s not a phenomenon you only find in two or three people on earth. Every great striker knows it’s all about the timing between the person who plays the pass and the person making a run into the right zone. It’s nothing new.”
This is another parallel between the two Müllers. Since there seemed no logical explanation for Gerd’s tendency to be suddenly unmarked, even though every defence in the world knew he was the most dangerous man on the pitch, many people presumed he played instinctively. Germans call this having a Torriecher – a nose for the goal, like an animal picking up a scent. Gerd slightly resented this explanation because it ignored not only the countless hours of work he put in (he even loved to go between the sticks during training to better understand how a goalkeeper thinks) but also the rest of the team. It’s the same with Thomas.
“No matter in which walk of life, man always needs an explanation,” Müller said. “He wants to understand things. Often he comes up with a very simple explanation and says it’s all because of a certain talent or maybe even chance. But sometimes what happens is the product of an elaborate move involving many players. When you make a run, you don’t always do it for yourself. Often you do it to open the door for a team-mate. If you look at basketball, this is a key element: three players create the space for one to shoot. In football, this is often underrated.”
Müller illustrated this with his opening goal in Germany’s fabled 7-1 rout of Brazil at the 2014 World Cup. We first discussed this goal last November; now he returned to the question I had back then: how could a lethal forward like him be this unmarked a few yards in front of goal following a corner? “I’m sure people watching at home threw their hands up and cried, How can the Brazilians not mark him?” Müller said. “Of course, at the end I was unmarked. But if you watch replays, you’ll see that Miro Klose and I were initially both closely marked. But then we made runs in opposite directions. We were basically exchanging positions. Our markers followed us and one of them got stuck in the goalmouth traffic. This happens.”
Perhaps the greatest testament to Müller’s unique talents is that Pep Guardiola, the high priest of ball circulation, goes along with Van Gaal’s famous dictum that “Müller always plays”. When the Catalan signed for Bayern, some wondered if the two would get along. After all, in an interview a few years back, Müller characterised himself as a player who “isn’t so much involved in the buildup and doesn’t have many touches of the ball.” This sounded unlike the kind of football Guardiola loves, but Müller didn’t lose sleep. “No, I wasn’t really worried,” he said. “In football, and especially at Bayern, it’s ultimately all about performance. If you do well during training and perform during the games, you will play. If you don’t, you won’t. When I heard that Guardiola would come in, I didn’t think about my future, I was just excited and curious.”
One day, of course, he will have to think about his future. In October, a fairly innocuous Müller remark – “Of course, the wages that are being paid in the Premier League are very tempting, it would be hypocrisy to deny that” – triggered another round of reports that he might be bound for Old Trafford. It would be a major move, because Müller’s roots are firmly in the Munich area. His grandma Erna once said that her late husband, who died before Müller was born, must have passed on his love for Bayern from above. Müller says he knows all the old family stories, of how this grandpa, terminally ill, said on the day before his death, “Just let me watch Bayern one more time on television.” Almost inevitably, Müller grew up a Bayern fan, slept in club-coloured covers, and went to games at the Olympic Stadium with his cousins, who had season tickets, before he was 10. (His favourite player was Giovane Elber, Bayern’s Brazilian striker.)
But he’s also a professional and highly competitive. And as much as he might joke about his spindly legs and his lack of dribbling skills, he knows that his blatantly obvious but deeply mysterious qualities are few and far between in the modern game. Now that the big teams increasingly find themselves up against sides that play very deep and leave them next to no space in the final third, having someone who can interpret this space so well as to be suddenly unmarked is priceless.
In Dublin, Müller had his eyes on the ball as Hector’s cross whizzed past friend and foe. He met it first-time, with the inside of his right foot. For a fraction of a second, the Aviva Stadium on Lansdowne Road seemed to fall silent. Everybody, German and Irish, held their breath and followed the flight of the ball. It went wide of the left-hand post by less than an inch.
Müller sank to his knees and buried his head in his hands. He is, after all, a normal guy.
This is a feature article from issue 07. If you like what you see, we hope you’ll consider a subscription to the print edition of Eight by Eight.