Thomas Müller’s form last season alarmed many Bayern fans. The arrival of James Rodríguez has in turn sparked many discussions on social media, with some arguing that Müller’s place in the team is under threat. In what is the first of my Ramblings, I choose to argue otherwise.
One of FC Bayern’s most well-known and well-loved players, Thomas Müller is never far from the headlines. Nearly every other day, there is a story about a possible transfer (usually to the Premier League) or how he will or will not fit into Carlo Ancelotti’s lineup. Much of this, of course, is clickbait and nonsense.
Müller’s lack of form last season was disconcerting for many FC Bayern supporters, more so because we have come to expect something extra special every time he steps out onto the pitch. The fickle nature of some fans of Die Roten, amplified by the monster that is social media, only helped to feed this growing sense of angst.
Then, Colombian winger James arrived on a two-year loan deal from Real Madrid. Cue a social media meltdown, and a number of talking heads peeking over the parapet. Even former director Matthias Sammer has had his two Pfennigs worth.
A mystery wrapped up in an enigma
Just have a look at the prospective team lineups posted around the Internet. Pinging away on Twitter, popping up on Facebook. James in the starting lineup, but no Müller. Tommy cannot start, because he doesn’t like being out on the wing. Tommy should be on the bench, because he didn’t score many goals last season.
And so on and so forth.
Müller has always been something of a mystery wrapped up in an enigma. A player who doesn’t look like a footballer. Awkward, spindly, shirt flapping in the breeze. But, somehow, he has produced the goods since breaking into Louis van Gaal’s Bayern team as a teenager in 2009.
Think about it for a moment. In 2009, Müller made his break as a first team starter at Bayern. The year after that, he was one of the stars of the rapidly developing your German team at the World Cup in South Africa. Every year after that was a good one, and his stock continued to rise.
Defined by his endearing awkwardness and positive attitude, Müller quickly became the undisputed fan favourite in Munich. Even before Fußballgott Bastian Schweinsteiger’s departure. It would not take long until early every other Bundesliga-related transfer story was about the self-dubbed Raumdeuter.
For some, Müller’s malaise is all down to Carlo Ancelotti. It is from here that the gossip mongering machine cranks into action. Stories of the player not liking the coach, and wanting to leave Munich. Fake news stories about his having talks with Manchester United or made-up tales about secret meetings with former coach Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
Well, enough already.
It is fair to say that Müller had a poor 2016-17. His goal scoring touch had disappeared, he seemed to mope around on the pitch more than usual, and had even started to miss from the penalty spot. Some would look for a thin silver lining in pointing out his dozen or so assists, but the scores were clearly marked on the doors. In looking for explanations, critics were quick to leap in and blame the coach.
I do not see it this way at all. For me, Müller’s poor form had started well before Ancelotti’s arrival in Munich, at the tail end of the 2015-16 season. First, there was the missed penalty in the Champions League semi-final against Atlético de Madrid. Not exactly the biggest confidence booster. With little time to regroup, Müller was back in the thick of it at Euro 2016.
Running out of steam
The tournament in France had begun solidly for Joachim Löw’s Mannschaft, only to end in more semi-final heartbreak. For Müller, the tournament was a disaster. He had completely lost his natural eye for goal, and the killer instinct had gone. He even fluffed another penalty in the quarter-final shootout against Italy. In the semi-final against the hosts, he was largely anonymous. And this in a team where he had always been indulged by the coach.
This is where the malaise really started to take hold. It was not so much a loss of form, but pure and simple burnout. Having played at the highest level since 2009 and turning out quality display after quality display year after year, something had to give.
Being the relentless beast that it has now become, modern football is terrifyingly unforgiving. Busy schedules, public appearances, the pressure created by the legion of armchair critics and fair weather fans. It can sometimes all get a little too much.
Müller’s battery had been run flat. When you buy a high-spec sports car, you cannot expect it to run at the same level for seven years. It needs some attention. It needs to be given some quiet garage time. Simply, it needs good old-fashioned TLC.
A player cannot simply keep going indefinitely. Even the best of the best will all hit a wall eventually, and Müller would hit his at the end of the 2015-16 season.
What followed afterwards cannot be simply attributed to Carlo Ancelotti’s team selections and the “sudden” change of tactics at Bayern. Müller has played for four different coaches – van Gaal, Löw, Jupp Heynckes and Guardiola – and has always been able to adapt and accommodate change. Indeed, his adaptability and versatility has made Müller the player that he is.
All he needed was a rest, a break from the continuous pressure. Quiet time. Playing the role of helpful stable boy for his wife Lisa. Making time for a quiet round of golf. Not thinking about playing football.
The decision by Löw to pick a young and inexperienced side for this summer’s Confederations Cup could be far more productive than first imagined. As well as giving fringe players and new faces an opportunity to play tournament football, it saw all of the senior pros get the entire summer off. For Thomas Müller, this could prove to be just what he needs to kick-start his career again.
In the pre-season short format Telekom Cup match against Werder Bremen, Müller was starting to look like the player we all know and love. There was a delightful left-footed finish to open the scoring, and then a sublime back-heel to set up Juan Bernat for a second. Annoyingly, another fluffed penalty kick showed that he hasn’t quite recovered his Elfmeter-Mojo. Surely, this will make a welcome return too.
In spite of all of the negativity, Müller is still an important figure in Munich. Carlo Ancelotti has said as much, batting away Sammer’s unwanted criticism like swatting away a pesky fly. Every player is valued, and everybody will get the chance to prove themselves. As fans of FC Bayern München, this is what we want. It is all about picking the best team, with no room for sentiment or picking favourites.
Thomas Müller is a determined character, and his winning back his regular starting eleven will not be for want of trying. After the blip of last season, this year could see the resurgence of a more determined Raumdeuter. With the World Cup just around the corner, the timing could not be better.