Thomas Müller and FC Bayern Munich, it is almost unthinkable to imagine the one without the other. The attacker has played 495 games for Bayern and scored 186 goals and provided 171 assists.
Furthermore, the now 30-year-old has won eight German championships, five DFB Pokals, and the Champions League with the club. “Müller always plays,” said Louis van Gaal back in the 2009/10 season.
It is a statement that held true throughout the ages. Until 2017 when Carlo Ancelotti started to bench the attacking midfielder at the start of the season. Shortly after, Ancelotti was gone, sacked after an embarrassing performance against Paris Saint-Germain.
Bayern would walk to the title, and Müller ended up scoring eight goals and 16 assists in 29 games. But perhaps the writing was already on the wall. Already last season Müller clashed with new head coach Niko Kovač.
Müller did not always start, but ultimately still scored six goals and added 12 assists in 32 games. At the same time, Müller struggled at times to show the stellar form he displayed under van Gaal and Pep Guardiola.
Decline can be slow, almost quiet. In Müller’s case, it was most visible in the national team where the forward no longer had the impact displayed from 2010 to 2014. As a consequence, Löw opted to no longer nominate the forward.
Meanwhile, at Bayern, the most obvious sign was Lewandowski’s slow-down in goal production last season. The forward scored 22 goals, seven less than the year before, and had ten assists, which was a career-high. In other words, Lewandowski was doing the work of two players, which limited him in the final third.
Some of that was due to Kovač’s tactics. Müller is not a good fit for the Croatian’s preferred 4-3-3 formation. Instead, Müller prefers to play almost as a shadow striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But Kovač prefers to play with a more natural number 10 when opting for a 4-2-3-1.
Kovač’s tactical preferences were the reason why the club signed Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho this summer. Unlike Müller, who is a Raumdeuter, playing between the half-spaces like a false-9, Coutinho is comfortable in both the number 8 and 10 roles.
For example, while Müller averages 0.79 assists per 90 minutes, more than Coutinho’s 0.36 assists per 90 minutes, the Brazilian completed 74.4% of his forward passes this season, Müller just 57.41%. Also, Coutinho plays 8.08 final third passes per 90 minutes, Müller only 4.44, which makes him a better suited in-between the lines midfielder.
As a result, Müller had just 36 minutes of game time in the last four games, and Niko Kovač avoided giving him a starting guarantee against Hoffenheim. Müller then did come on in the second half as Bayern were struggling against Hoffenheim and assisted Lewandowski’s goal that made it 1-1.
After the game, however, Kovač told the media: “When there is a need, he will get his minutes.” That statement, in particular, has upset Müller, according to a report by Sport Bild on Wednesday, and the forward might now be willing to leave the club as early as this winter.
Bayern without Müller is hard to fathom at this point. But for the first time in nearly 20 years, it could become a real possibility.