Thomas M'ller: Leading Hansi Flick's FC Bayern from the Front
He describes himself as 'Raumdeuter' meaning space interpreter or invader
The year 2020 has transpired in the most outlandish and unparalleled manner but cut-back to November 2019: none of us were aware of this peculiar possibility. However, the circumstances were pretty bizarre for Germany's most successful football club, FC Bayern Munich aka FCB.
On Matchday 10, the Bavarians were humbled and humiliated by Eintracht Frankfurt. Away at Frankfurt, they lost the game 5-1. It was for the first time since April 2009 that they had conceded five goals in Bundesliga and were now sitting in utterly unfamiliar surroundings, that is, the fourth position in the Bundesliga table. With this match, Niko Kovac's topsy-turvy managerial stint at the club was also wrapped-up.
“Müller always plays,” these words were uttered by former Bayern Munich coach, Louis van Gaal back in 2010. The ride hasn’t been smooth for the succeeding managers who have tried to deny and dissent from the wisdom inherent in this proverbial phrase.
Out of the 15 games that Bayern played under the guidance of Kovac in the 2019-20 season, Thomas Müller started just seven of them and did not complete the full 90 minutes more than twice.
“I’m absolutely not (satisfied with the situation)’, Müller told Kicker after getting merely 67 minutes in a string of five Bundesliga games.
“I am just 30 years old, fit and hungry for success – with the club, but also personally. I am firmly convinced that I can help the team on the pitch. If the coaching team only sees me in the role of a substitute player in the future, I have to think about it. I'm just too ambitious for that.”
Müller’s response that reignited the transfer rumors linking him to the Premier League was caused by Kovac’s recent press address in which he had said, “If there is a need, he [Müller] will certainly get his minutes.”
Müller, who has been at the club since the age of 10, has made over 500 appearances for the club, scoring 196 goals and assisting another 191. Born in Weilheim, bred in Bayern’s youth academy, he is currently the only player in the team who embodies the Bavarian spirit of the club. Pushing him to the margins didn’t help Kovac’s cause just like it didn’t help Carlo Ancelotti’s – Kovac’s predecessor at the helm of the club. Both were sacked soon after their relationship with him rattled.
The blunder at Frankfurt turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the club. After the game, the stewardship of the club was given to Hansi Flick – Kovac’s assistant. At first, he was an interim boss but eventually, he earned his permanent contract.
FCB had won the double last year under Kovac but the football that they had displayed was no way near their brilliant best. At Bayern Munich, the fans and the hierarchy not only expect the team to win everything but win comprehensively and beautifully. The last time they had touched their sky-high standards was perhaps under Pep Guardiola.
Flick’s appointment began a transformation of the team’s playing style and performance that would lead to the club’s record 30th Bundesliga title – their 8th in a row, another record. It is still possible for the club to win the treble as they are in the finals of the German cup and the pre-quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League.
Under Flick, Die Roten has hit their dazzling, dominant, and merciless best. And the role played by Thomas Müller has been absolutely instrumental.
Flick starts Müller on the right side of the attacking midfield but to pin-point or to limit him to one particular position would be reductionist and an injustice to his genius.
Fiery pace or dribbling trickery and often both of these attributes are considered pivotal to succeed in the final third of a football pitch and Müller can boast of neither. However, this in no capacity means that he isn’t a threatening attacker and a nightmare for his marker. He overcomes his deficiency with his superior positional play, intelligent runs, and an exceptional understanding of the game. The concept of social distancing is novel for the world but Müller has been silently distancing himself from his markers for years.
“It’s always been one of my greatest strengths: my positional play without the ball in-between the lines and into those deep areas in the final third,” Müller told Goal.
He describes himself as a “Raumdeuter” which means a space interpreter or invader. “I like to be active in the space behind the opposition's midfield. That’s where I can hurt the opponent most of all. I’m a mix between a striker and a midfielder. I’m a Raumdeuter. It’s about instinct,” he once famously said.
Flick allowed him to embrace his creative freedom, roam candidly in the final third, constantly interchange his positions like an invisible man, and Flick has reaped the rewards that he bestows. This season, in the Bundesliga, he has scored seven goals and assisted a league-high 20 from 25 starts.
Flick’s Bayern employs a possession-centric, high-pressure system with a high defensive line which aims to recycle the ball as soon as possible and thereby stay on the offensive. It’s a rigorous and relentless system that requires supreme efficiency and coordination. And Müller fits in this system like a glove.
“For my game, structure is super-important. It has to be clockwork. I see myself as a cog. I can throw my qualities and playing characteristics into the mix and I can help the team improve that way. I will never be a player who picks up the ball outside his own box and goes past three men. That's harakiri [a Japanese ritual suicide]. My game becomes very good when Bayern are able to spend a lot of time in the final third in a controlled manner. When we manage to have stability, when we're in control of the build-up and the game, I find it easier to have a positive impact,” explained Müller in a recent interview with The Athletic.
Being a serial winner and an influential figure for FC Bayern and Germany for many years, the World Cup golden boot winner has never received the limelight he deserves. Amusingly, this perhaps aligns with his skill of staying hidden and then suddenly popping up at the right place. However, this year along with the goal-machine Robert Lewandowski and the midfield-marshal Joshua Kimmich, Müller, who recently signed a contract extension with the club, too poses a weighty claim to be named Bayern and Bundesliga’s Player of the Season.
Saurabh Nagpal, a second-year English Honours student at Hindu College, University of Delhi
Cover Photo: Thomas Müller in action. Credits: Sebastian Widmann/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images