Thomas Muller gets more tangible results from intangible skills than any player in any sport on the face of the planet. Usually, when we talk about intangibles we talk about players who do the little things: glue guys, clubhouse guys, guys who are willing to put in the dirty work other players won’t. But that’s not Muller. Thomas Muller scores goals. He scores them all the time; he’s regularly a top goal-scoring contributor on perhaps the best club team in the world, Bayern Munich, and one of the best national teams in the world, Germany. But exactly how he gets them? That’s the intangible.
What He Does
Muller’s go-to move is to wave his hand and say, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Defenders seem to magically ignore the space he moves into, or the space he passes the ball into, or the exact damn space he’s standing in. How else do you explain how, no matter what position he’s playing, no matter if it’s for club or country, no matter if he’s playing against world-class defenders or old and slowly crumbling Manchester United ones (kidding!) (not really!), he magically pops up in the right place, at the right time, without a defender around him? And then he scores?
In an age where every wunderkind teenager on the planet has a six-minute sizzle reel of tricks, flicks, and breathtaking, long-distance shots, Muller actually has one called,“The Space Ruler,” which is mostly just him showing up, unmarked, one-on-one, with the keeper.
He just gets to the best place and finishes in the corner. No big deal. Over the last four years in the Bundesliga, Muller has scored 33 goals with his feet, mostly starting from midfield positions, shooting from an average distance of 16.1 yards (numbers via ESPN Stats & Info). That’s incredibly close. Of players who have scored more than 15 goals with their feet over that time span, only poachers like Mario Gomez and Raul averaged shooting from closer. And Muller does it all while crashing the net from midfield. His shot chart looks like he’s a goal-poaching specialist, which is amazing since he spends most of his time playing in other parts if the field.
On the German National Team
Muller seemed to spring fully formed onto the international soccer scene at the 2010 World Cup. Despite being only 20, with a single season of first-team football under his belt at Bayern, Muller was the breakout star of the tournament. He had five goals and three assists, enough to win him the Golden Boot and Best Young Player awards.
Now, instead of a surprising upstart, he’s one of Germany’s biggest stars, and he’ll be a complete nightmare for opponents, especially in the context of the rest of that German squad. Specifically 2010’s other major breakout star, Mesut Ozil. If Mueller is the master of magically making space appear in front of net, then Ozil is the perfect complement. He’s a player seemingly born to find pockets of midfield space to thread passes through for players like Muller to finish. Complete the team with Muller’s midfield co-stars at Bayern Munich, and you have a dangerous, creative, attacking side.
Yet despite all their flair and panache, this generation of German players is still waiting for their first finals appearance at a major international tournament. They lost to Italy in the semifinals of Euro 2012, and Spain in the semis of the last World Cup. They’re clearly a great team, they’re clearly an entertaining team, and they’ve, over the last four years, been the second-best team in Europe.
Muller and Ozil are still young, but the rest of this current German squad is aging fast. Striker Miroslav Klose is an age-defying 35, and Mario Gomez is running smack into the end of his prime at 28 (UPDATE: Gomez did not make the provisional squad). Superstar fullback Philipp Lahm just hit the wrong side of 30, and Bastian Schweinsteiger is 29. This may be their last run at winning a major international trophy. Fair or not, players are judged on whether they win major titles, and this German group hasn’t yet. For this generation of talent, this summer is the now-or-never moment.
Thomas Muller has been at the center of a group of players who remade the German national team’s image from ruthlessly effective to gorgeous and entertaining. All that’s left is for them to finish the job with a World Cup victory. If that happens, don’t be surprised to see Thomas Muller standing in the middle of it, coolly waving his hand at a Brazilian defender, explaining, “This is not the ball you’re looking for,” before turning and slotting it into the corner of the net.