Bayern Munich have been managing Thomas Muller’s minutes given their Champions League commitments. Against Union Berlin, they rested him and had to settle for a draw. Against Stuttgart, they substituted him and suffered a late equaliser.
Julian Nagelsmann has the best squad in the Bundesliga so rotation makes sense but it is fascinating that Muller’s absence is still felt. Without him, runs are made either too late or too early. Those half-spaces where he does his best work are often left vacant.
It is a reminder of his ongoing importance.
As Muller turns 33, that is some achievement at one of the world’s biggest clubs. Twelve years have passed since Louis van Gaal shared his famous selection maxim that ‘Muller always plays’ and, in the very biggest of games at least, that remains true.
Jurgen Klinsmann has tracked the journey longer than that. He gave him his Bayern debut in 2008. “Thomas Muller is a very, very special player,” says Klinsmann when asked to sum up a man who has made over 600 more appearances for the club since that first one.
“He grew over the years into the icon at Bayern alongside Manuel Neuer. Now you have a younger one, Joshua Kimmich, who is the leader of the group as well. But Thomas is just such a personality and such a positive influence on the chemistry of the team.
“That is his role. He has just always been very, very big. No matter if he maybe scores more goals or does more assists. This leadership role that he has developed with Bayern Munich it is just a wonderful story. Throughout his entire career, it is a wonderful story.”
Eleven Bundesliga titles and two Champions League wins. The golden boot at his first World Cup and the gold medal itself at his second. “There is definitely enough material for an incredible Netflix series one day,” laughs Klinsmann. “The Thomas Muller series.”
It feels like Muller has been around forever but he remains a mystery. A man who, with his socks around his ankles, does not look much like a modern footballer but might well be its definitive one.
He is a No 10, a false nine, maybe even a genuine nine. He is a right winger who roams. The tag of raumdeuter – space interpreter – came early and nobody has found a better way to describe it since. He is still interpreting the space, still confounding the critics.
Pinpointing precisely what makes Muller so good, how he has been able to enjoy a career that others of seemingly comparable talent could only dream of, often proves as elusive as his runs into the box. Others should be able to do what Muller does. They cannot.
Consider the nature of the praise and the source of it. Pep Guardiola once claimed that Muller’s biggest strength was “his optimism and opportunism” – qualities of the mind rather than the body. Defenders must fear the worst but forwards have to believe.
Jurgen Klopp also highlighted Muller’s intellect. “Incredibly efficient and incredibly clever,” he once said of a player who was the bane of his life in his Dortmund days. “His movements sometimes look simple but are so often incredibly correct and almost ingenious.”
This skill, this genius, was occasionally a source of tension during Guardiola’s time at Bayern. The coach’s obsession with a positional game, where players had to stay exactly where he wanted them, did not always chime well with the free-spirited raumdeuter.
But Muller continues to find a way.
Maybe it is the science of scanning that offers our best hope of understanding his knack of always knowing where the space is. What is certain is that the statistics tell us the result – this is one of the world’s most creative players. He had more assists from open play than any other Bundesliga player last season.
Lionel Messi is the only active player with more assists in the major European leagues. That speaks to longevity but Muller is still doing it. Not only did Muller have more open-play assists than anyone else last season, the number of chances that he created from open play was far, far greater than any other Bundesliga player.
Many of those chances were for one man in particular.
On Tuesday, the day of his 33rd birthday, Muller can expect to be overshadowed in the build-up to the evening’s Champions League game against Barcelona by the return to Munich of his old pal Robert Lewandowski. Theirs was a special partnership.
Muller has assisted more goals for Lewandowski than anyone else has for any player since the Bundesliga began recording such things almost two decades ago now. “Every second,” Lewandowski once said, “Thomas knows where I am and how I move.”
Lewandowski is extraordinary but Klinsmann credits Muller for much of the success of their combination play. “The partnership was amazing over so many years because they just had an instinct for each other, they knew exactly where the other one was,” he explains.
“I think that role suited Thomas so well because he doesn’t need to play in the very front, he can come from behind or come from the side. So he was always able also to adjust his own personal role to whatever the environment was or whoever was next to him.”
With Lewandowski gone and a new team being built, it would be easy for Muller to lose a step. Instead, early indications are that this shapeshifter of a footballer will adapt, finding a new muse. Still, he creates more chances from open play than anyone at Bayern.
“Now I have to find another player who will make those runs,” he says. Cue two assists against Eintracht Frankfurt. “Or I might be the one who receives the pass.” Cue his goal against Wolfsburg. Times they change but Muller keeps on keeping on.
And there is another World Cup to come.
“He can be super proud of himself and I hope that he is able to put another couple of trophies on his shoulders,” says Klinsmann. “His big goal is the World Cup, going to Qatar and doing well again for Germany, something that he has done already so many times.”
Before that, there is Barcelona and Lewandowski.