Tall Poppies & Chris Waddle: The necessary ordeal of Thomas Muller

The Twitterati have spoken. Thomas Muller, the 21-year-old wunderkind who won the Golden Boot at last year’s mediocre World Cup, is officially a disappointment.

Against Inter, the great white hope of German football did a lot of running but – contrary to what those xenophobic dullards who continually slate Dimitar Berbatov for ‘laziness’ might have you believe – running is not in itself a guarantee of a player’s quality. And one header that missed the target seemed to crystallise the commentariat’s view that the possessor of the second most famous surname in Bayern’s history has gone off the boil.

In one way, this verdict has absolutely nothing to do with Muller’s actual form. It is partly inspired by the changing nature of football commentary. Gone are the days when the likes of Barry Davies or Huw Johns would polish their literary allusions or bon mots (one of John’s finest, politically incorrect, remarks was “He owns a flower shop this feller but he’s no daisy”).

Today many commentators have adopted the tone of a disappointed headmaster. This scolding tone has reached a monotonous, joyless crescendo with Chris Waddle’s analysis on ESPN.

Waddle (right) blathering on about 'pelanties' for ESPN...

The Waddler, as his pal Gazza used to call him, has become a professional scourge, taking every opportunity to grumble that such-and-such a striker really should have ‘made the goalkeeper work‘, bemoan the abysmal quality of any ball into the box, and rebuke a defender when a pass goes astray.

We don’t want commentators or pundits to be cheerleaders but Waddle picks fault so often and with such enthusiasm you would think he’d never tried something that didn’t come off, dropped a clanger or blasted a penalty over the bar in a World Cup semi-final.

That’s a cheap shot, I know, but Waddle’s bluster is irritating and paradoxical: in his diatribe about Theo Walcott’s deficiencies he sounded remarkably like the kind of blinkered coaches who forced him to play abroad in his heyday.

There’s only one Oleg Salenko!

Waddle is a particularly telling example of a joyless tendency Australians call Tall Poppy Syndrome. And right now Muller has become, for many, the tall poppy that needs cutting down.

The good news for the Bayern forward is that this is an ordeal every good player must endure. Despite thousands of years of evidence to the contrary, we like to pretend that people’s lives follow a simple arc.

If they start good, they ought to become great before, inevitably, spinning into decline. If they fail to conform to this pattern – and most footballers do, their progress is a stop-start, two steps forward, one back, kind of process – the idea soon spreads that they are overrated. This gap between how we believe players ought to develop – and how they really grow – is behind what many pundits call “second season syndrome”.

Thomas Muller: Tall poppy or previously overrated?

So now eight months after he was officially one of the most promising young footballers in the world, it is Muller’s turn. The worst-case scenario for the Bayern star is he becomes the new Oleg Salenko, the joint Golden Boot winner at USA 94, whose career petered out at Rangers where he showed more commitment in flare gun fights with Gazza than he ever did on the pitch.

Things haven’t sunk that far yet. Indeed, the stats suggest they haven’t sunk very far at all. In 38 games for club and country in 2010/11, Muller has scored 18 goals and created 15. In 46 games in 2009/10, he scored 19 and was credited with ten assists – the kind of crisis in form many Chelsea players would love to be suffering right now.

So why has the commentariat rushed to condemn him? Muller is not a perfect footballer – he can drift out of games, could be more ruthless in front of goal and might fare better if he was physically more robust. But he has more technique than most English players, doesn’t lose his cool, can play in a variety of positions and shows glimpses of impressive vision. Not bad for a forward who only made his debut for Bayern in August 2008 and is still younger than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

An encouraging strangulation

I wonder if the real challenge Muller faces at Bayern isn’t about focus or quality but about imposing himself. That is why I find it deeply encouraging that Arjen Robben recently tried to strangle him for showing disrespect. Holding your own in an attack alongside such gifted egocentrics as Franck Ribery and Robben, especially with Mario Gomez emerging as first choice fox in the box, cannot be easy.

And Muller comes across as a pretty straightforward, level-headed young man who doesn’t indulge in the same power games as many of his peers. He has been tipped as a likely new Ronaldo. That might sound fanciful to those who saw him against Inter, but he has already amassed a third of the Brazilian striker’s record-breaking tally in World Cup finals.

If there’s one thing Muller could learn from the original Ronaldo, it is probably that great players achieve greatness by being selfish when necessary. If Muller is to silence the doubters, he needs to discover his inner devil.

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