Player of the month January: Thomas Müller
January was a mixed affair for FC Bayern in several respects. After a brief results crisis with a 3-2 defeat against Gladbach on matchday 15 and the bitter DFB-Pokal exit on penalties against Holstein Kiel five days later, the results are back on track. Since then, the team has scored an almost impeccable 16 points from 6 games in the Bundesliga. However, the temporary drop in form was more or less visible in all of FC Bayern’s games in January. The past five Bundesliga matches were almost without exception hard-earned victories: The opponents were mostly inferior, yet the team laboured to its victories.
The reasons for this are manifold and have been discussed in detail here in the blog before.
Since the biggest problem at the beginning of January was the game out of possession, it was obvious that the first step towards more stability would be to improve the team’s defending. And so it happened. Step by step, the coaching team introduced minimal tactical adaptations to stabilize the defensive structure, such as consistently having three men at the back with one full-back always staying behind when the other surged forward. Nevertheless, creative and free-flowing football at Bayern still seems to be quite a way off. The team’s attack scores goals and delivers results, but watching them do it is not much fun at the moment.
What is missing most urgently are creative ideas and solutions for different situations. At the moment, it almost seems as if Bayern are unsure what to do with their overwhelming possession. Apart from unimaginative long balls over the top, technically clean and precise approach plays on the opponent’s goal are few and far between.
The only creative sparks are provided by Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Müller. Kimmich runs the game in midfield with clever decisions and a fine right foot. Ahead of him, Thomas Müller does the same. For some time now, it has been impossible to imagine Flick’s 4-2-3-1 system without him in the central attacking position as a number 10 or second striker.
The contest for player of the month of January between these two was a very close one. Both have the most shot-creating actions per game (Kimmich 4.59; Müller 4.49 – excluding Costa with 4.78 but only 314 Bundesliga minutes). The decision in favour of Thomas Müller was ultimately due to his impressive all-round qualities, which he consistently demonstrated in January.
Müller has been in the starting eleven* in all of FC Bayern’s games so far. His statistics are impressive: He ranks 4th in the list of the Bundesliga’s players for distance covered, is Bayern’s second best scorer after Lewandowski with 10 goals this season, and ranks 7th in the Bundesliga in the same category. In addition to his 10 goals, he has already contributed 11 assists – a league best. In January alone, he contributed 4 goals and 4 assists. With a total of 365 “pressures”, averaging to 18.25 per game, he is also one of the players who puts the opponent under pressure most often – only Sané can trump this at about 20 pressures per game.
FC Bayern’s games in January were characterised by a lot of rotation. However, there are some positions where Flick does not make any experiments. Apart from the goalkeeper position, these are Kimmich in defensive midfield, Lewandowski in the center of attack, and Müller in central attacking midfield. Throughout his career, Müller has played in all conceivable offensive positions in various systems, mostly to good effect. However, for some time now, it has become apparent that he is most prodigious in central attacking midfield. His role can best be described as a near perfect combination of offensive playmaker carrying a goal-scoring threat and an impressive mix of pre-orientation, anticipation and decision-making ability with a good eye for open spaces. It is no accident that he has contributed as many goals as assists this season.
In January, Müller repeatedly demonstrated his exceptional strengths with the ball, which are based on three core factors: His good vision and pre-orientation enable him to quickly perceive the positions of teammates and opponents. But what Müller does better than many other players are his anticipation and decision-making. Müller is a master at anticipating how a play might develop. This became clear again and again in the games in January, when Müller, who is never the physically fastest player on the pitch, nevertheless was often the crucial fraction of a second earlier on the ball than his opponents. Due to his ability to read the game and predict how a certain dynamic may play out, Müller in his head is already ahead of many teammates and opponents at this point. On top of that comes his consummate situational decision making once he gets the ball. What completes Müller’s overall package is that, in addition to his speed of thought, he is also capable of successfully executing his actions because of his supreme composure on the ball and calmness under pressure, backed by his creative and unorthodox ideas.
In addition, Müller’s overall package includes a strong team spirit, too. He always carries out his actions with a view to maximum team success. Sometimes it almost appears as if one can watch him rapidly computing a situation in his mind, analyzing what next decision will maximize the probability of success – i.e. most likely lead to a goal. For him, this includes that he does not always have to have the ball himself to be part of a dangerous goal-scoring opportunity. Apart from his passes in behind, his clever movements in between the lines (often in the half-spaces), and his finishing qualities, he consistently creates spaces for his teammates through his running paths.
Müller has established himself as the team’s foremost “coach on the pitch” in the games behind closed doors during the COVID-19 pandemic (“Radio Müller”). But it is not only through his loud, clever instructions that he directs his teammates; his performances on the pitch further add to his standing as an absolute leader.
*The final of the Club World Cup on 11.02.21 was the first match he missed, due to a SARS-CoV-2 infection.