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Samarendranath Soory has a look at the reason behind Thomas Muller’s goal-drought and why the Bayern man still brings a lot to the table
When Thomas Muller sent the ball fizzing past David Ospina in the 88th minute in Bayern Munich’s five-goal rout of Arsenal at the Allianz Arena, the home fans were able to see the jubilation on their beloved player’s face which has become a rare sight this season. With that goal, the German reduced the distance between him and his teammate Robert Lewandowski (6 goals from 7 Champions League games) to 3 goals. This is not much of a matter of concern in Europe given Muller is Bayern’s top scorer on the continental level, but in the league, Lewandowski is leading by 19 goals while Muller has just a solitary goal from 21 Bundesliga matches. Though not the most prolific of scorers, the Bayern youth product has built up his reputation of being a predator inside the box. So, what has warranted the Munich native’s enormous dip in scoring goals?
It starts by answering a very basic question – Does scoring less make Thomas Muller a bad player? The answer is definitely not. For the simple fact that the German is a supremely skilled footballer possessing multiple facets to his game rather than just scoring goals. The forward has already created 46 chances this season in the Bundesliga for his teammates which is highest among in the Bayern ranks and fifth overall in the entire German top division. Muller has also made 43 key passes leading to the goal which is just two short of his in-form teammate Thiago Alcantara across all competitions for Bayern.
With many complaining about the goals drying up from the German and some even believing his goal-scoring touch deserting him, Robert Lewandowski explained something to the critics that made sense.
“You do not lose your goal [scoring] instinct. It simply does not work that way. He is just going through a phase where he is lacking a bit of luck. But he will soon rediscover his form,” the Poland international told Munchner Merkur.
This also raises the main issue with Muller’s lack of goals this season–his role in the team. Previously under Pep Guardiola, though the team’s tactics were a bit more complex, Muller’s game was not altered in any way. He was always the wild card who confused the defenders, he would hug the byline sometimes, then suddenly pop up infront of the goal seconds later. His role was defined but his unorthodox way of scoring goals remained untouched by Guardiola. As a result, by his 17th Bundesliga match in the 2015/16 season, Muller had already crossed the double figures and just was two goals away from his best league tally of 13 goals.
While acting as the auxiliary striker alongside Robert Lewandowski, Muller’s second nature of creating chances and setting up his teammates has never dipped down. He racked up double figures in 2013/14 and 2014/15, registering 10 league assists in each season while it came down to five last season, because he was busy scoring goals rather than setting them up.
This also had to with the shape of the midfield Guardiola was using at that time. Though there were countless number of formations used by the Catalan tactician, deploying a four-man midfield was always constant. It contained a single holding midfielder–prominently Xabi Alonso or Philipp Lahm for a good measure of time and two more as supply lines for the striker upfront. Muller was tasked with the latter with an added responsibility of playing as the strike pair to Lewandowski. For a player nicknamed as “The Raumdeuter” or “The Spacefinder” Muller’s sharpness in operating in small spaces was a big plus for Bayern.
However, under new manager Carlo Ancoletti, Muller is more of a “Space creator” rather than the usual Spacefinder he is. He marauds the edge of the box to drag the defenders towards him allowing Thiago and Vidal to put Lewandowski through to the goal. In order to elucidate the sea of change in his responsibilities, let’s compare his movement from matches from 2015 and 2017 against oppositions of similar calibre where Muller was on the pitch for full 90 minutes.
The first graphic is the heat map during Bayern’s 3-0 victory against Eintracht Frankfurt in the 2014/15 season and the latter is his movement in Bayern’s most recent match against FC Cologne which Bayern won by the same margin. Deployed in a four-man midfield and playing behind the striker by Guardiola, Muller was allowed the freedom to operate in the central areas while chiefly operating on the right flank. He was able to put in regular crosses into the box for his fellow attackers while also being able to be present to receive balls in the centre.
While in the second picture, you can figure out the faint triangle formed by Muller’s movement where his chief area of operation is on the far right of the middle third and sometimes along the same horizontal line near the centre. This depicts his restricted role under Ancelotti where either it is drop deep or get into the box. In the 2015 game, Muller assisted the opener and scored a goal himself, while in the recent match, he was able to produce one assist while his threat to the goal was very minimalistic with just two shots on the goal.
Generally an effective player in the hole position or on the wings, as proven during his time under treble-winning coach Jupp Heynckes, this season’s heavy focus on supplying Lewandowski with the final ball has seen the Bavarian attacker not finding the back of the net often. With Thiago Alcantara acting as the chief playmaker coupled with the heavy competition for places in the starting XI have also played a part in the striker’s form.
While some could argue that Ancelotti has distanced himself from Muller by benching him in key matches against Leipzig and in the Champions League.
“There was more space than in previous games and it was a game where I could have enjoyed myself. So I was obviously not watching on from the bench with a smile on my face,” he told Sport Bild after a crunch fixture against RB Leipzig earlier in January.
As soon as these comments were out, there was plenty of media speculation that finally Manchester United could lure the 27-year old away from Munich.
But that does not seem to be the case as Ancelotti has praised the German international’s contributions to the team on multiple occasions this season and given the Bayern squad are being rotated constantly under the 57-year old, it’s better for United not to get their hopes too high.
Though there seems to be an invisible obstacle stopping Muller from scoring at his regular rate, there are no issues with his other aspects of the game let alone him being surplus to Ancelotti’s plans. He remains reliable and vital for the team as ever, but in ways other than just scoring goals. Being Bayern’s top scorer in Europe and his reputation of being a striker have turned the microscope on Muller this season. Muller himself made it clear that he doesn’t see himself as a striker.
“I also don’t enjoy being classed as a striker — I don’t see myself as one. I like to be active in space in behind the opposition’s midfield. That’s where I can hurt the opponent most of all. I’m a mix between a striker and a midfielder.”
Despite not having too many goals to celebrate, this season has gone on fairly well for Thomas Muller and his new role has only been helping the team as they look to seal a record fifth league title in a row. While the transfer rumours and criticisms might be flying high, they don’t seem to bother the player himself at all who seems to be perfectly happy.