This piece originally appeared on www.just-football.com.
Thomas Müller is not a striker in the conventional sense. He does not position himself between the centre-backs and act as an offensive pivot. He does not perpetually loiter on the shoulder of the last defender, ready to burst through on goal. He does not even start in the fourth band. Nonetheless, I would argue that Müller is the definition of the modern striker.
Few players in the history of the game have taken to top-level football as effortlessly or exerted such a dominant influence. As recently as 2009, Müller was playing in the third tier of German football with Bayern Munich II. Since then he has won two Bundesliga titles, two DFP-Pokals, the 2010 World Cup Golden Boot, the same tournament’s Best Young Player award and, finally, a Champions League.
He has also been a runner-up in two Champions League tournaments, scoring what seemed a certain winner in the 2012 final before Didier Drogba wrote Chelsea’s name on the European Cup. As The Stranger says at the beginning of The Big Lebowski, “Sometimes there’s a man. Well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” Thomas Müller is undoubtedly the man for his time and place.
We are all familiar with the narrative of the endangered number nine and the changes in the required attributes for fourth-band players over the last ten to fifteen years. Strikers must now also be defenders, pressing from the front. As central space comes increasingly at a premium, they must now start in deeper, wider positions and dart into the middle at transitions.
Müller is so suited to this game, so ready to meet these tactical demands, that he is widely and incorrectly seen as something he is not: a midfielder. If, as Jonathan Wilson suggested in Inverting the Pyramid, Juan Román Riquelme was the last of the old-school playmakers and Luka Modrić the first of the new, then Radamel Falcao is the last old-school striker and Thomas Müller the first of a more advanced modern breed.
David Villa, Marco Reus and Theo Walcott, to name but a few, have found that the distinction between wide player and striker has never been so fluid. The goalscoring exploits of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, playing as false nine and wide-forward respectively, have been an illustration of football’s stylistic evolution.
However, Müller is not like Villa, Reus, Walcott, Messi and Ronaldo: they are all proactive players – forces of nature, in the case of the latter two – capable and receptive to receiving the ball anywhere on the pitch and dismantling the opposition by themselves. He does not win with the ball. He does not get consistently involved in build-up play as typical wide-forwards do, nor does he seek to dribble in a conventional sense.
Müller is, like all great strikers, reactive by nature. He sees where opponents position themselves, looks for space and finds a way to score or assist based on circumstances specific to the moment. Like classic number nines of years gone by, he does not want the ball. In possession, he is merely Clark Kent; when his teammates have the ball, he is Superman.
In fact, Müller is more like Anton Chigurh, the brutally efficient killing machine from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. In the Coen brothers’ 2007 film adaption of the novel, the MacGuffin, a satchel containing $2m, is lost, sparking a frantic and increasingly bloody search. Carson Wells, a rival hitman of Chigurh’s, tells him that he knows where the satchel is. Chigurh responds: “I know something better. I know where it’s going to be.”
That is the kind of instinctive, ruthless brain Müller has. Just when his opponents believe they have the upper hand, he trumps them with a solution they had not even considered. The incredible goal he scored away to Hamburg last season was quite possibly the best example of this ability and style of play.
When Franck Ribéry received the ball close to the left touchline, some 35 yards away from goal, Müller saw that the HSV line was suicidally high up the pitch. He slipped inside his marker on the opposite flank and sprinted in behind the centre-backs. Ribéry chipped the ball into the area, leaving Müller one-on-one with René Adler. Sensibly, the goalkeeper closed the angles, forcing the forward wide and onto his weaker foot.
As Müller reached the touchline, there appeared to be only one option: cut the ball back into the centre of the area and hope that an onrushing teammate finished the chance. Adler positioned himself to cut out the inevitable cross. With only a split second to make a decision, Müller spotted an absurdly acute but nevertheless open angle and clipped the ball inside the disbelieving stopper, between the posts and into the net.
It was the finish of a player who possesses a natural killer instinct; of a player who sees the goal first and foremost and places his on-pitch reference points accordingly; simply put, it was the finish of a striker. Not just any striker, either – one of the best around.