MSR Awards 20/21 Season: Most improved player
Originally, Hasan Salihamidžić wanted someone completely different. In the summer of 2019, he tried in vain to prise Callum Hudson-Odoi away from Chelsea. This failed, as did all future attempts. But once you are in London, you do not want to go back empty-handed, so he and Marco Neppe unceremoniously grabbed Jamal Musiala and brought him back with them to Munich.
And so the talent, who was still considered an Englishman at the time, found his new footballing home at the Bayern campus. First he played for the U17s, then the U19s, and finally from the second half of last season on for the reserves (U23). Delivering consistently convincing performances in Sebastian Hoeneß’ championship team he left an impression on Hansi Flick, who took him to the Champions League final tournament in Lisbon as a training partner for the first team.
However, in order not to give rise to false legends here, it is by no means as if the young Musiala had knocked everything out of the park in the 3rd league. The considerable talent that he is now rightly attested as having only flashed up in moments. The development that Musiala has made since came as a surprise to many and shows once again how different paths the careers of young talents can take. Some play everything to pieces in their youth, but fail to gain a foothold later in the professionals. Others, despite their excellent reputation, do not particularly stand out in their youth teams, only to then burst onto the scene at the professional level.
And burst he did. From the very first match on, Hansi Flick saw Musiala as a completely established addition to his squad. As a frequent substitute, he progressively collected minutes in all competitions and was able to score his first (even though unimportant) Bundesliga goals.
The big breakthrough came in the first week of December. With his team already qualified for the round of 16, Hansi Flick fired up the rotation engine for the match against Atlético Madrid. Musiala was the best man in an inferior team. With fine movements he cut through Simeone’s defensive fortress time and again.
More important than this better friendly, however, was the Bundesliga match that followed. Set up conservatively, FC Bayern were chasing Leipzig and the result. Then Javi Martínez got injured in the first half and Hansi Flick brought on Musiala, who became the gamechanger. Intuitively, he formed triangles with his teammates and suddenly the game flowed where it had previously stuttered. Musiala scored the all-important equalizer with a very poised shot from distance.
“He is a great talent. He scored the goal superbly and additionally had some very good moments. He is very composed on the ball, very quick, agile and hard to catch. He will be very good value for Bayern.”Julian Nagelsmann, Musiala’s future coach. Not just Bayern, Julian.
Lucien Favre once coined the term “polyvalence”, which has found its way into modern football language. Polyvalence, ie. versatile players. Jamal Musiala is a prime example of such a player. Despite his limited playing time, there is hardly a position that he has not played in. Predominantly deployed as a number eight in attack, he has also played on both wings, as a traditional number ten and even briefly in defensive midfield. His future is unlikely to lie there, but he was convincing in all positions. His most striking ability is his dribbling. In central midfield, he shows himself here as a space-opening technical player in the half-spaces. More Thiago than Thomas Müller or Leon Goretzka.
On the wings, however, he made the loan of Douglas Costa completely obsolete. There he could use his considerable speed and conceal his few remaining weaknesses in the passing game.
This versatility ultimately brought him into the German European Championships squad because what the national coach is looking for and has found in Musiala is something different from what Hansi Flick saw in him for most of the season. For Flick, Musiala was usually the first substitute for Thomas Müller in the ten or eight position. It helped that Bayern’s midfield was very thin this season, which meant additional playing time for Musiala.
Joachim Löw does not have to deal with all these worries; he has a surplus in midfield at his disposal like nowhere else. But it is precisely skilled dribblers that he has been craving for years. Musiala will take on the role of the lively offensive super-sub at the European Championships. He is pretty alone for that role in the German team. Musiala may be used much more often than many observers think possible.
As with all players, one can be curious to see where Julian Nagelsmann will use Musiala. One skill that I have not mentioned so far is his goal scoring. Six goals in under 900 minutes is a very good return. It is quite possible that Nagelsmann will see Musiala’s best position a bit further up the pitch as a false nine alongside Thomas Müller or Serge Gnabry behind Lewandowski. For example, he could be the central offensive midfielder in a 3-4-3 feeding Lewandowski while offensive wingers support them.
The 2020/21 season is the season that saw the rise of Jamal Musiala, a 17-year-old who started the season as a nobody, played his way into the rotation of the reigning Champions League winners, sparked a minor footballing war between England and Germany for his services in the national team, and is finally heading to the European Championships. Parts of this story are reminiscent of a certain Joshua Kimmich. Not the worst omen.