Life isn’t easy for everybody, but some are born charmed. Thomas Müller, for one, plays striker for Bayern Munich and the German national team. He has scored boatloads of goals and won every trophy conceivable. Yet what infuriates rival fans and even other players is how Müller struts the field nonchalantly, a typical cock of the walk. In an era where strikers increasingly play alone up top, work harder, and score less goals, Müller remains a throwback to a bygone era.
And what most frustrates you just may be what makes him special.
In the best light, Thomas Müller plays soccer with the grace of a swan’s flight. He moves effortlessly and is deceptively quick. The angles and timing of his run indicate a higher form of soccer intelligence, and he always coordinates well with his strike partner. If Lewandowksi or Klose calls near post, he glides to the back post. If they loiter behind the second centerback, Thomas sprints to the corner flag. Optimistically, he “conserves his energy” when his team are not on the ball. While teammates tackle and chase and hamper, he floats about, already anticipating a future counter attack.
Müller rarely scores amazing goals. With a lanky frame, he seldom jumps over defenders to power home headers. His thighs are so thin you fear they might snap after a hard tackle. Don’t expect to see any thunder-strikes from 25 yards when he gets the ball in midfield. But Müller possess excellent awareness of the keeper, the goal, and the nearest defender. He never rushes his shot; he always finds his feet. He impeccably places his shots to the far post; his quick trigger and the zip on his efforts often deceive defenders and keepers alike. Observe:
Thomas Müller is not the stuff dreams are made of. He possesses no quicksilver dribble like Messi or overpowering athleticism like Ronaldo. Rather, Müller is the exceptional product of the aggregation of a hundred above-average parts. His left-foot is above average. His first touch is pretty good. He moves well off the ball and coordinates runs with teammates. His timing is impeccable: Müller never makes a run too early or too late. His box composure is better than most. If he possessed only one of these attributes, he’d be playing in a regional league for a town in some godforsaken corner of the Black Forest. Instead, he’s one of the stars for Bayern Munich and World Cup champions Germany.
Müller’s soccer intelligence means he can play many roles. Nevertheless, he always relies on a target man up front. At Bayern Munich, he’s played with Mario Gomez, Ivica Olic, and now Robert Lewandowski. For Germany, Miroslav Klose has been the battering ram to his rearguard forays.
Still, any hardworking player harbors jealousy at the fluidity of Müller’s play. He looks average an entire game until he’s exceptional for the ten seconds necessary to score a goal. While most forwards run their socks off all game to try and get on the end of ten or so chances, Müller only needs two-to-three chances per game to score. And he knows this. Oftentimes his best movement is stasis – he stands even with the nearpost and at the top of the 18 yard box, waiting for Costa or Ribery or Robben to dash to the endline and cut the ball back.
Müller would probably struggle as a sole striker, but for Germany has shown an ability to thrive on the wings. He may lack the pace to trouble a leftback, he has the guile and craft to still create chances and pop up at the right time in the box. Müller does little work to win back the ball and you won’t see him chasing down lost-cause passes, but don’t confuse his lethargic lapses for a lack of lethality.
Like all of nature’s most dangerous predators, Müller uses stillness to drape himself in an invisibility cloak. The lack of movement casts a fog over the defense, but the ambush is coming. It’s only a matter of time.
Elliott writes about soccer at Futfanatico.com. He is the author of An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, available on iTunes.