Thomas Muller, maybe typically, doesn’t go in the direction you might expect. The Bayern Munich forward is talking about his ability to make what seems like exactly the right run for every attack, which opposition players say is almost like a sixth sense. One international once expressed incredulous frustration at how often a single Muller move repeatedly took four players out of the game.
The expressive 31-year-old raises his eyebrows at the idea this is anything innate, or extrasensory.
“That can be coached, for sure,” Muller explains. “I think people make a bigger thing about it to explain how a player maybe with not a special physicality, skill, or dribbling skill, is so efficient. So, maybe in my younger age, when I’d score two goals and people ask how is that possible, they try to make like a ‘mythos’. They build up something that is normally logical as special.”
Speaking for the first part of a wide-ranging interview ahead of next week’s crunch Bundesliga game with RB Leipzig, Muller is remarkably relaxed for someone that would be seen as a standard-bearer for a club with as demanding a winning mentality as any in football. He is full of quips, and jibes, casually unpicking a few perceptions.
“That’s one of my talents,” Muller laughs when his casual nature is put to him.
If the forward insists there is no special talent that has elevated one of the most successful careers in the game, he almost offers a masterclass in how to think your way through the game; how to maximise space in the manner that really differentiates the top level.
Muller begins to explain the thought process behind one of his runs, and what he sees as a move develops.
“In football, there are a lot of signal situations,” he says. “For example, the ball is on the left wing and the left winger is dribbling, but there is no option to cross. So he passes the ball back, maybe diagonally, to defensive midfield, or back to the left-back. Every opponent defender is looking to the ball like a zombie.”
At this point, Muller literally mimics a zombie, even making a grunting sound. He is evidently never as switched on as in these moments.
“So it’s clear that the space behind the diagonal cross in the right part of the box is empty and clear. You can make a run from the right side, on the offside line, and then cut in.
“That’s a clear situation. Normally, the number-six or the left-back has to know that this ball is the best option to score. You have to find out and figure it out with your teams when this situation happens. They have to know that you do the run, and you have to know this pass is an option.
“Sometimes it’s easier than it looks like – but of course you need the right timing, the technical timing of the cross. One of the most important things for a good cross is don’t try to put it on somebody’s head. Put it in the space, because the striker has sometimes more time than you think. When you put it clear on the target, and not into the space, it’s easier for the defender.”
This is also what Muller means when he says it’s “logical”, and that it can be coached. His runs aren't the product of any rare insight, but basic repetition – and patience. It is something very drilled.
“Maybe it’s special that one of my strengths is I do it again and again and again. Every good striker or good attacking midfielder knows that these runs are very dangerous for the opponents’ defence but some are maybe not strong enough to do it 50 times. Maybe 49 times you don’t get the ball, or you lose it.
“Football is a game of many, many mistakes – especially in attacking. We have to try it again, try it again, then maybe the defender makes a mistake at the 51st time. Then you can score.
“So it’s more logic than my born talent.”
Such repetition raises a question that is starting to stratify the modern game. How much is pre-programmed, and how much is freeform – and how much has that changed from when Muller started his career?
His answer is admittedly a little skewed by his experiences.
“Well, I started with Louis van Gaal, so he had a plan, for sure! Maybe in German football, he was one of the first coaches that has this clear plan of offensive football. I think defensive tactics are in Germany since I don't know but for the offence we try to play more this Van Gaal, ‘voetbaltotaal’ style.
“We try to use a lot of passes or technical skills, but I think in a 90-minute game, you have always a plan, but on the pitch you have to decide in every situation.
“For example Pep Guardiola always had a plan with us, but after 10 minutes, he could change everything. He watched the opponent and thought 'oh my first plan wasn't good enough' or 'my first plan didn't work', so I think the game also develops outside of the pitch. The coaches try to be maybe more systematic, and they are maybe better prepared more on the details.
“Maybe coaches in earlier times tried to give a good feeling to the team, they know to handle the players, to keep them confident, and psychological, put them in a good position, but I think the tactical things, the whole business is more systematic.
“I don't know the situation right now in City, but in our times, Pep Guardiola said ‘I bring you to the box and after that you have to show me your talent and your feeling’, so he plans and prepares everything, yeah, maybe 20 metres in front of the goal. We had players like Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, good strikers, always good strikers, Mario Gomez, or Mario Mandzukic, Mario Goetze always this time, myself, Douglas Costa – he would say ‘I bring you to this line, and then you have to do the rest of the job’. I don’t know how it is right now [with City].”
As regards those strikers, Bayern now have perhaps the greatest of all in Robert Lewandowski. The Pole, who England face on Wednesday, makes it even easier for Muller to make those runs.
“I know Robert a long time. It gets better and better as the last two, three years, we trust each other a little bit more. We know that when we play together we are stronger. Of course, for me, he's very good because I know what he wants to do so I know to set it up for him a little bit better than a new striker. He knows that when I look up, I try to find him. I always try to find the straightest way to the goal as possible, and normally that's the striker. He knows I don't play for the circus shot, I play for scoring. He’s our best scorer and I try to give him the ball in that situation and he can score. Normally he does.”
That, for Muller, is something else that is simply “logical”.
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