Bayern Munich and Germany's goal-getting space invader seems to have no ceiling to his excellence...
Thomas Muller thought carefully as he tried to explain how the one of the world’s most ungainly footballers had also become one of the world’s greatest footballers. His answer was simple: “Ich bin ein Raumdeuter.”
It may not have been quite up there with JFK’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in the fame stakes, but Muller quickly found he had coined a phrase. A new footballing term had been born, a term chiefly associated with just one man.
If the phrase is starting to be used to describe others too – Football Manager even added the term to their computer game - Muller will always be the original Raumdeuter, 'the interpreter of space'.
Muller is the man who has always understood how to be in the right place at the right time, the man who can find space in the penalty area when it seems there is none. The man who can always find a way to goal, no matter the fact that every conventional gauge suggests he shouldn’t be a world-class footballer.
In many ways, Muller is the anti-Ronaldo: questionable technique, not particularly quick, shabby appearance, no discernible ego and the sort of wiry physique that gives the impression he’s never visited a gym in his life. He has, of course he has. The trick is just to give the impression that he hasn’t.
I know that I’m constantly in a grey zone: a footballer who doesn’t always look like a very good footballer
“I know that I’m constantly in a grey zone: a footballer who doesn’t always look like a very good footballer,” Muller admitted in an interview for Raphael Honigstein’s enlightening book Das Reboot.
“I understand that many find it hard to get me. But at some point they maybe start thinking: ‘Oh he’s quite good after all’. It’s not easy to find somebody who plays this strangely. I follow my instinct. It’s something that’s deep inside.” Aesthetics have never been a priority for Muller. The scuffed finish that scrapes over the line counts just the same as the howitzer into the top corner.
If some thought his impact at the top level wouldn’t last, they have been proved wrong time and again. Year after year, Muller continues to deliver, and 2015 has been no different. By mid-November he had 27 goals for Bayern Munich in the calendar year, taking his total for the club to 179. Eight of those 27 goals came in the Champions League, in only 10 matches, while a fourth Bundesliga title arrived in April. Little surprise, then, that while Bastian Schweinsteiger was expendable in the summer, Muller was not for sale. Not at any price.
Manchester United reportedly offered £60 million, but Karl-Heinz Rummenigge could not have been clearer in his stance about the player who has become the essence of the modern Bayern Munich, just like namesake Gerd was in the 1970s. “There are some players who just don’t have any price tag,” said Rummenigge, Bayern’s chief executive. “We would be out of our minds to sell Muller.”
He may not have the elegance of a Mesut Ozil or a Mario Gotze, but he’s the key man in the modern Germany team too, the world champions no less. His 10 goals in just two World Cups are testament to his ability to perform at the highest level, and make him the man most likely to challenge compatriot Miroslav Klose’s all-time record of 16 strikes at the tournament. Not that the Raumdeuter has ever interpreted life too seriously. If Ronaldo appears driven by individual accolades and legacy, the anti-Ronaldo seems just happy to live in the moment, to enjoy playing for not one but two of the world’s greatest teams.
Bayern’s players know it’s rarely dull when’s he around – whether it’s barking like a dog midway through a Philipp Lahm TV interview, dancing bizarrely in full lederhosen, appointing himself ‘managing director of carrots’ for the horse he owns called Dave, or making fun of his team-mates’ international miseries.
Asked whether he would be making the most of Arjen Robben’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016 with the Netherlands, Muller replied: “If not now, then when? You have to take advantage of these moments.”
He did the same with centre-back Dante when Bayern Munich returned to training after Germany’s crushing World Cup semi-final win over hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte. Eventually the defender could bear no more, telling Muller: “If you don’t stop, I’m going to hit you in every training session.”
That he felt comfortable even to quip about Pep Guardiola – asked who at Bayern took the longest to do their hair before a match, Muller replied ‘Robben and the coach’ – says much about the strong relationship he has with his follicly-challenged boss.
Starting at centre-back
It could all have been so different for Muller. A centre-back in his youth because of his lack of skill on the ball, he moved further forward but even Jurgen Klinsmann was ready to let him leave for Hoffenheim before Louis van Gaal took the helm. Van Gaal gave the youngster his chance, soon insisting that no matter who else was fit, ‘Muller always plays’.
The Dutchman’s successors at the Allianz Arena have stuck with that philosophy – for one very good reason, it works. It is a philosophy that is unlikely to change, as Muller shuffles on in his own unique, unlikely but unstoppable way. At Bayern, just like in the penalty area, there will always be room for the Raumdeuter.