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Bundesliga

The awkward conductor: Muller closes on assist record as renaissance continues

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Bayern Munich's German forward Thomas Mueller gestures during the German first division Bundesliga football match Bayer 04 Leverkusen v FC Bayern Munich on June 6, 2020 in Leverkusen, western German

Image credit: Getty Images

ByPete Sharland
06/06/2020 at 16:04 | Updated 06/06/2020 at 16:37
@PeteSharland

Bayern Munich may have one of the most expensive squads in the world but there will always be a space for the ungainly kid from Bavaria as long as Hansi Flick is in charge, writes Pete Sharland.

A touch, a little dink, then a short wait. That’s all Thomas Muller needed as he set up his partner in crime to put the cherry on the cake of Bayern Munich’s Saturday afternoon.

Muller’s wonderful little ball into Robert Lewandowski was an open invitation for the Polish forward, who gleefully headed home his 44th goal of the season.

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It was Lewandowski’s 30th league goal of the campaign and Bayern’s fourth on an afternoon where they dismantled another of the so-called pretenders to their throne. The Bavarians are now 10 points clear at the top of the table with just four games left, although Borussia Dortmund can close back to seven if they beat Hertha Berlin in the late game.

For Muller it was his own piece of history. The assist for Lewandowski was his 20th of the season in the Bundesliga. It is the first time that any player in Europe’s top five leagues has hit that figure since the 2014-15 season when Kevin De Bruyne did so for Wolfsburg. Muller now just needs two more assists to break De Bruyne’s Bundesliga record for a single-season assist tally and it is the Belgian who comes closest to the Bayern man this season. De Bruyne has 16 assists, as does another Bundesliga player, Jadon Sancho.

This season Bayern have scored a remarkable 90 goals, at an average of three per game, the next closest are Dortmund with 80. The next highest figure of a non-Bundesliga team is Atalanta in Serie A with 70. The freedom with which Hansi Flick’s side play at the moment is staggering and a complete contrast to the stuttering mess they were at the beginning of the season. Like them or loathe them there is no denying that they are fantastic to watch.

Bayern Munich's Polish forward Robert Lewandowski (R) celebrates with Bayern Munich's German forward Thomas Mueller after scoring his team's fourth goal during the German first division Bundesliga football match Bayer 04 Leverkusen v FC Bayern Munich on J

Image credit: Getty Images

Yet despite the sheer electricity of Alphonso Davies, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman, the cute touches of Leon Goretzka or the pure ruthlessness of Lewandowski, it is Muller who draws the eye. Of course in some ways this is no surprise, the 30-year-old is legendary for the awkward and ungainly style with which he plays.

But at the same time his grace is also remarkable. Muller constantly appears to have more time than every single player on the pitch. He sees openings that Thiago Alcantara or Goretzka do not and always seems to be in far more space than he has any right to be. He has referred to himself as a raumdeuter (space interpreter) throughout his career, ever since he was thrown into the first team under Louis van Gaal, but this term often was used to symbolise his goal-scoring.

Yet in the 2010's no player in Gemany registered more assists than Muller’s 144 and this is the seventh season he has hit double-digits for that metric. Perhaps it’s time that we start appreciating what Muller is doing for his team-mates as well as when he is in front of goal. His understanding of space, and self-awareness of his own remarkable ability to find it, is being used to his team’s advantage. If Muller can get into space better than anyone else it stands to reason he can either drag opposing players out of position or be better placed to find other players in red around him. And because he processes things so quickly he can execute even more quickly, as his second assist on Saturday showed so perfectly.

"With Thomas next to me it’s easier.” Lewandowski said in December 2018. “He helps me a lot. We complement each other very well.

“Thomas is always heading towards the opposition goal, with a lot of movement. We always have one player more in the penalty area when he plays.”

Thomas Mueller of FC Bayern Muenchen balances a ball on his finger during a training session at Saebener Strasse training ground on June 05, 2020 in Munich, Germany.

Image credit: Getty Images

However as Muller candidly revealed this week in the build-up to the game, his time at Bayern might have been coming to an end in another world. Muller, who is seventh on the all-time appearance list for Bayern and recently signed a new contract, told the club’s website about his longevity in Munich that "you need the quality, the attitude, the strength and you just have to deliver on the pitch.

“Without all that it's not possible to play for FC Bayern for as long as I do. You simply have to perform. The club signs a player because they hope to achieve their goals with him.

Ten months ago, the situation was quite different. Who knows if we would have extended my contract to 2023 then?

“In the footballing business, but also in everyday life, there are often only subtle differences between different decisions."

It’s no secret that Niko Kovac didn’t appreciate Muller in the same way that those before, and after, him had done so. Last season under Kovac was just the second time in Muller’s career that he failed to reach double figures in either goals or assists in the league (the other was the 2011-12 season) and before Kovac’s departure there were concerns about his future.

However, since Kovac was fired Muller has been unstoppable. All seven of his goals have come in the 20 games since, as have 16 of his assists. Bayern were four points off top spot and in for them what represents a crisis. Now they’re closing in on yet another title and are one of the favourites for the Champions League.

In the centre of it all remains Muller. Hard to pin down and often under-appreciated, still doing what he does for one of the biggest teams in the world. At the end of the season Muller could be a nine-time German champion and have added to his sole European title. He is also of course a World Cup winner. Perhaps it’s time more of us started giving this genius the dues he deserves.

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FootballBundesligaBayer 04 LeverkusenFC Bayern Munich
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