Nobody really knew how to explain the brilliance of Thomas Muller, but nonetheless, his brilliance was in no doubt.
The term ‘Raudeuter,’ which can be roughly translated as an interpretation of space, was often used to categorise the German forward, but that only served to underline the difficulty in pigeon-holing a player whose effectiveness was his superpower.
‘Was’ is the key term there. It’s been a while since Muller was his old effective self. To this day, it can be difficult to truly pin down what made the German forward so good at his peak, but whatever it was, it is now gone.
It was therefore unsurprising, given Muller’s sharp decline, that his international career was, in essence, brought to an end this week.
Muller was one of three players, alongside Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, told by Germany manager Joachim Low on Tuesday that he will no longer be considered for national team selection. Few expected Low to make such a definitive statement on the future of three of his most successful players, but Germany are a team in need of a transition after a dismal World Cup campaign and Muller is no longer doing the job.
“Of course, I was surprised by the decision of the coach,” Muller explained in a video posted to his Instagram account in light of Low’s announcement. “A national team coach has to make sporting decisions, I don’t question that. But the longer I think about it, the more I’m angry about the way this has happened. I have no understanding for the suggested definitiveness of this decision.”
Perhaps Muller should look at himself before he starts pointing the finger at others. It’s not just Low who is questioning the forward’s future, with Bayern Munich also reported to be open to selling the 29-year-old should a reasonable offer be made this summer.
So what happened? Muller’s decline can be traced back to the exit of Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich in the summer of the 2016 and the subsequent arrival of Carlo Ancelotti, with the latter very different ideologically to the former.
Ancelotti, an advocate for positional discipline and rigidity, failed to see a place for the position-less Muller in his team.
By the time Ancelotti was forced out following a poor start to the 2017/18 season, Muller had seemingly forgotten the key to his own efficiency. Even with a familiar face, Jupp Heynckes, in charge, Muller was a peripheral figure. It certainly wasn’t uncommon to see him on the Bayern Munich bench last season.
Not so much an interpreter of space, Muller was a waste of space last season.
Muller’s fortunes have improved somewhat of late, which makes the timing of Low’s announcement somewhat peculiar. He has been key to Bayern Munich’s recovery after a difficult start to life under Niko Kovac, but the Croatian coach has still used Muller as part of a rotational system, prompted debate in German footballing circles.
Some believe Muller has been harshly treated. Others still see a player underperforming.
It could be argued that Muller has been the victim of a transition that has taken place for both club and country. Both Bayern Munich and Germany enjoyed simultaneous spells of success, winning everything in front of them, but those years of success came at a cost, with the two teams now meek imitations of their former selves.
The old guard must make way for the next generation sooner rather than later and Muller has been identified as a necessary sacrifice.
Some statistical measures, like his tally of 18 and 17 assists over the past two seasons respectively, still stand up. Other measures, however, like his goal tally – just six in 32 appearances this season – validate the general consensus over Muller’s disappointing form.
Even at his best, the German forward was never one for beating an opponent with skill or trickery. He very rarely burst past defenders with pace. At times, his touch was questionable too.
It’s this unexplainable brilliance that makes Muller’s decline equally unexplainable.
If no root to a problem can be found, will there ever be a solution? Low, it appears, thinks not.