Bayern Munich icon Thomas Muller on Musiala, Guardiola and why he's STILL hungry after 27 trophies


Thomas Muller, the most-decorated player in German football history, is gurning at the camera, doing a zombie impression, leaning in alarmingly close to the laptop, almost near enough to make you recoil.

‘Urrrrghhhh!’ he mimics, wide-eyed and manic. There is, fortunately, a benign explanation. Muller is attempting to explain how he received the nickname Der Raumdeuter, the interpreter of space.

‘In football, there are a lot of signal situations,’ he says. ‘The ball is on the left wing, the left winger is dribbling, but there is no option to cross and he passes the ball back, maybe to defensive midfield or to the left-back… So every opponent defender is looking to the ball, like a zombie…’ And here comes that disturbing impression: ‘Urrrghhhh.’

Thomas Muller is the most decorated footballer in German history with 27 trophies to his name

Thomas Muller is the most decorated footballer in German history with 27 trophies to his name

Muller is still causing defences havoc and spearheading Bayern Munich's trophy charge at 31

Muller is still causing defences havoc and spearheading Bayern Munich’s trophy charge at 31

The Bayern legend spoke to Sportsmail this week over Zoom from his home in Bavaria

The Bayern legend spoke to Sportsmail this week over Zoom from his home in Bavaria

He smiles at his attempts to impersonate zombies and returns to his theme.

‘So it’s clear that the space behind, maybe the diagonal cross, in the right part of the box is empty and clear. So, you can make a run from the right side, on the offside line, and then cut in. That’s a clear situation. Normally, the No 6 or the left-back has to know that this ball is the best option to score.

‘You have to figure it out with your team-mates that, when this situation happens, they have to know that you do the run, and you have to know that they know this pass is an option. Sometimes, it’s easier than it looks but of course you need the right timing, the technical timing for the cross.

‘One of the most important things for a good cross is don’t try to put it on somebody’s head, put it in the space, because the striker has sometimes more time than you think, but when you put it clear on the target [for a header], it’s easier for the defender, and there’s no chance to score.’

Muller is a serial winner despite not having the gifts of Lionel Messi

The German star's trophy cabinet is even comparable with that of Cristiano Ronaldo's

Muller doesn’t have the divine gifts of Messi (left) or Ronaldo (right) but is still a serial winner

Muller may not have a signature skill to demonstrate his individuality, but is world class

Muller may not have a signature skill to demonstrate his individuality, but is world class

And that is how you accumulate 27 trophies in your career, including the World Cup, two Champions League titles, the World Club Cup and nine Bundesliga titles despite having neither the divine gifts of Lionel Messi, nor the speed of Cristiano Ronaldo nor the physique of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Muller is in some respects the journeyman Messi. There is no rational explanation for what Messi does. Muller though, achieving at the highest level for 11 years now, can quantify his gifts and rationalise. which make them seem within reach to any professional.

Muller’s trophy cabinet

1x World Cup

9x Bundesliga 

2x Champions League 

6x German Cup

2x FIFA Club World Cup

2x UEFA Super Cup

6x German Super Cup  

‘That can be coached, for sure,’ he says, keen to debunk the mystique. ‘People make a bigger thing about it to explain to themselves or to the rest of the football world that a player without a special physicality, skill, or dribbling skill, is so efficient. Maybe in my younger age, people watched my game and in the end I score two goals, and people ask: “How is that possible?” So they try to make something mythical, they build up something, that is normally logical, as special.

‘Maybe it’s special that one of my strengths is I do it again and again and again. Every good striker or every good attacking midfielder knows that these runs are very dangerous for the opponents’ defence but some are maybe not strong enough to do it 50 times. Maybe 49 times you don’t get the ball, or you lose it. Football is a game of many, many mistakes. We have to try it again, try it again, maybe the defender makes a mistake at the 51st time and then you can score. So it’s more logical than my born talent.’

Of course, were it quite that easy, we would all be World Cup winners, lauded around the globe as one of the game’s great players. But Muller is right in one respect. He has made a career out of being extraordinarily thoughtful, making the best of what he has. Frank Lampard did similar, a world-class player without a signature skill to demonstrate his individuality.

On Wednesday afternoon Muller was at his cerebral best, pondering questions from his Munich home on Zoom, giving each one some thought before answering. And amid the gurning, there are laughs and feigned offence, particularly when the subject of Bayern’s 17-year-old German-born but English-qualified prodigy Jamal Musiala comes up.

He mimics a degree of outrage when it is suggested Germany stole him from England’s camp, Musiala having starred for England’s Under-21s as recently as October after qualifying through residency rights, having moved to Southampton as a child.

Muller insists Germany didn't steal Jamal Musiala after he picked them over England

Muller insists Germany didn’t steal Jamal Musiala after he picked them over England

The 31-year-old said he likes to change things around and keep youngster Musiala on his toes

The 31-year-old said he likes to change things around and keep youngster Musiala on his toes

‘I don’t know if we stole him!’ protests Muller. ‘I looked at his bloodlines and there was no English blood in there!’ He is smiling heartily at this point, Germany’s gain being England’s loss and Musiala making his senior team debut for Die Mannschaft on Thursday night. ‘But we are very happy in Germany that Jamal decided for Germany. The set-up now, with his long contract to play in Bayern and decision for the German national team, fits very well.

‘They keep me on my toes for sure [these teenagers] and they keep my body in shape. But I think the other way round. I keep them on their toes! And they have to know that when they start playing for Bayern, it doesn’t matter which age, they have to win. So they have no time …. “OK, so I take a look in the next few years and I watch the older players and have to learn.’ That’s part of the process [of developing]… but [they need to think] “while I’m playing I have to do everything to win.”’

Muller has done just that and a 10th Bundesliga title beckons. Bayern play RB Leipzig next weekend in a top-of-the-table clash which will do much to decide the destiny of the title. Then come Paris St Germain and the defence of last season’s Champions League. Should they win that, Manchester City are on the horizon, a potential clash between the two teams many regard as the strongest in the world right now. For Muller, it would be a fascinating contest, taking on his old boss Pep Guardiola, who had three years at Bayern.

‘A team with Pep Guardiola is always in shape to win it. But the problem is in the Champions League, in the knockout stage, you have only two games and many crazy things can happen. And last year in the tournament, there was only one game against Lyon. Maybe if there were two games they go to the next round, maybe. That’s the problem when you have only one chance or only two games there is more random [occurrences] than in 38 games like in Premier League.

A mouthwatering clash with Pep Guardiola's Man City could be on the horizon in Europe

A mouthwatering clash with Pep Guardiola’s Man City could be on the horizon in Europe

He opened up on what it was like to work with Guardiola during his spell in charge of Bayern and said he kicked their a**es in training every day

He opened up on what it was like to work with Guardiola during his spell in charge of Bayern and said he kicked their a**es in training every day

‘In the last two years, Liverpool was amazing. But normally a good team with Pep Guardiola wins the league, for sure. [The way he] he prepares his teams, his team against smaller teams, he is the best. But when two top teams play against each other, the difference is not big enough to put away the random facts.’

As with most players who played under Guardiola, the City boss has left an indelible impression. He didn’t win the Champions League at Bayern, which was the job spec, and when he joined the club in 2013 they had just won the treble of Bundesliga, Cup and Champions League. But he did, according to Muller, help build the current dynasty.

‘Our advantage was that Pep came after our big win in 2013. Jupp Heynckes [the treble-winning coach] had retired and Pep tried everything to be successful. So we had no time to rest on our success, because Pep kicked our ass in every training session, as he wants to show the whole world that in the new league he could do it again. That was important for this period to win the league. After Pep, we had two or three years, including last year, when the other teams had their chance, maybe. We had weak moments, or weak weeks but they didn’t use it. Maybe we were a little bit lucky… I don’t know how to explain… or maybe we were just better.’

As Muller describes the workings of Guardiola’s processes, it can sound very theoretical. ‘Pep Guardiola always had a plan with us, and after 10 minutes, we have five or four different plans more, he changed everything. He watched the opponent and thinks: “Oh my first plan wasn’t good enough” or “my first plan didn’t work.” 

‘The game also develops off the pitch, the coaches try to be more systematic, and they are maybe better prepared more on the details. Maybe coaches in earlier times tried to give a good feeling to the team, they know to handle with the players, to keep them confident, and psychological, put them in a good position, but I think the tactical things, the whole business is more systematic.’

Muller wont he Champions League last year, something Guardiola failed to do with Bayern

Muller wont he Champions League last year, something Guardiola failed to do with Bayern

He talked up the Premier League despite his success against English teams in recent years

He talked up the Premier League despite his success against English teams in recent years

The result, however, looks instinctive and aesthetically pleasing. ‘I don’t know the situation right now in City, but in our times, Pep Guardiola said: “I bring you to the box and after that you have to show me your talent and your feeling.” So, he plans and prepares everything until maybe 20 metres in front of the goal…. we had players [like] Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Mario Gomez, Mario Mandzukic, Mario Goetze, myself, Douglas Costa … and he said: “I bring you to this line, and then you have to do the rest of the job.”’

Muller looks like he will be a fabled one-club man, a Bavarian Ryan Giggs or Xavi. In 2015 though he came close to joining Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United and English football intrigues him. He recently compared an away victory at Stuttgart to winning on a windy night at Stoke, demonstrating he is conversant with the key aphorisms of English football.

‘I am a fan of the intensity in the Premier League because there are more big teams … I don’t know if quality of the clubs or the teams are really better. Because normally when we play against English teams, we have good experience! I do not feel that teams of the Premier League are super, super strong. But, of course, the competition is great. There are prestigious games each week. 

‘I think it’s the biggest league in the world, for sure. But that doesn’t mean that the top five of the Premier League are winning everything in their international competitions. When you compare the fourth of the Premier League and the fourth of the German league, when they play a knock-out game against each other, any team can win…’

One of the greatest moments of Muller's career came when he won the World Cup in 2014

One of the greatest moments of Muller’s career came when he won the World Cup in 2014

Muller has been exiled from Germany team since their disastrous World Cup display in Russia

Muller has been exiled from Germany team since their disastrous World Cup display in Russia

He has been superb for Bayern this season though and is not ruling out playing at the Euros

He has been superb for Bayern this season though and is not ruling out playing at the Euros

That said, 11 years at the top for Bayern and Germany is probably intensity enough for most. For now, Muller isn’t in the Germany squad after manager Joachim Low made a very public point of moving on to younger players after the 2018 World Cup failures, axing legends Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng along with Muller. But the Bayern striker is playing so well it seems inconceivable he won’t be back in the squad come the summer. ‘I hope there is a chance to see me in the Euros, but we will see what happens in the next weeks,’ he says.

At 31, he seems oblivious to pressure of the coming weeks. ‘That’s one of my talents!’ he says. ‘Normally I say you age three years in one year at playing at Bayern. The intensity is very high, of course, with the media. Every friendly match of ours is on German TV so you have no time to relax. Every time you make a wrong pass or a bad shot, everybody says “Oooh…Thomas Muller is not playing good!” It’s stressful, but I love it. 

‘When you are in this business a long time, you are a bit addicted to this pressure and that’s maybe one of the most difficult things after your career is to find something that gives you this adrenaline, that gives you this feeling… [but] there is no chance for us. Maybe when I go to the mountains and I make heli jumps, I don’t know? In a normal life, that is not possible. A lot of players have had problems in the past and will have problems in the future with this situation.’

For now, however, Muller has a Champions League and Bundesliga to defend and perhaps even will have to begin to prepare himself for a recall to the national team at the European. Leaping out of helicopters will have to wait.

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