People are bored by Bayern Munich. They are the quiet, consistent giants of world football who manage to be so without a Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, or even a Gareth Bale or Luis Suarez. Every year they win the Bundesliga, and maybe a cup too, and their standard is such that if they do not win the Champions League, it is seen as a relatively ho-hum effort. Pep Guardiola has failed twice in delivering the European Cup to Bavaria, Jonathan Raymond writes why the third time will be the charm.
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Thomas Muller is the most underrated player in world football
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t tally super flashy goals totals. Maybe it’s because he’s a fairly unobtrusive personality playing in the relatively unobtrusive Bundesliga. Maybe it’s just because he makes really weird faces.
Whatever reason it is, Thomas Muller, despite being Bayern Munich’s best player these days, is not generally recognised as a superstar of the magnitude that litter the teams – Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, England’s big sides – his club count as peers. He is, however, if not at the Messi-Ronaldo stratosphere, every bit on the next level where the Neymars, the Agueros and the Ibrahimovics exist.
He might even be the best of that breed.
Muller doesn’t necessarily score beautiful goals, and maybe that’s just why his profile still seems so low by comparison. The 26-year-old (is it centre forward? Is it attacking midfielder? Is it winger? Maybe all you can do is just call him an attacker) is a master of positioning. A lot of his goals are awkward tap-ins or unremarkable headers or simple-looking finishes off a rebound. Muller is plenty capable of ripping one in from 18-plus yards, but rarely does he flash the sublimity that draws the kind of adulation, say, Neymar receives.
At some point in Bayern’s semi-final tie with Atletico Madrid, he’ll dart into the area as he does, toss his lanky frame at the ball in some way or another and score, and people will remember, as they tend to around this time of year, “ah, right, Bayern Munich are one of the best teams in the world”.
Not, in that moment, fully realising Muller’s integral role in this fact.
Pace for days
Probably one of the primary reasons Thomas Muller is on a career-best 31 goals across all competitions this season is all that space he loves to operate in centrally is resulting out of the insane speed Bayern deploy on the wings.
Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa have as much pace as any wing pairing in the world, and it’s why central operators like Muller and Robert Lewandowski (37 goals in all competitions) are thriving as they are.
They’re at their best tearing apart slower backlines – think the 4-2 fightback against Juventus in the round of 16, feasting on poor Patrice Evra and Stephan Lichtsteiner. They accounted for two assists and a goal in an hour of terrorising Italy’s best.
Atletico’s Juanfran and Filipe Luis are solid, strong and physical, and helped clamp down Barcelona’s dynamic front three in the quarter-finals. What they are not, however, is especially pacey – and this is the critical weakness in Atletico’s fortifications Coman and Costa will expose.
Defence finds its shape
One area Bayern have proved vulnerable in Europe this season has been in defence, where they have been uncharacteristically leaky. The same side who have allowed only 14 goals in the Bundesliga (the fewest in Germany by 16) have somehow surrendered six in their four knockout legs in the Champions League.
Four of those goals, however, were scored with should-be second-choice players Javi Martinez and Medhi Benatia inserted into the back four.
When Philipp Lahm, Joshua Kimmich, David Alaba and Juan Bernat have all played together in recent matches, Bayern have had it locked down in front of the always-excellent Manuel Neuer (0-0 v Borussia Dortmund in early March, 1-0 v Benfica in quarter-final first leg, even one of Juventus’ goals in the 2-2 first-leg draw in February came after Benatia subbed on for Bernat).
Kimmich’s and Bernat’s only recent emergences as stalwarts leaves this particular backline, if Pep Guardiola is to turn to it, with further room to grow.
They have also been better when Arturo Vidal ranges further back in a bit of a holding role – look for that in these late stages.
The Guardiola factor
Pep Guardiola is on the cusp of his final chance to deliver the self-validation that would come with Bayern Munich winning the Champions League. His trio of Bundesliga titles won’t, fairly or not, prevent from his time in Bavaria being viewed as an underachievement unless he can deliver the European Cup.
Call this one more of a hunch than anything else, but we’re buying the Pep hype – if he has any tricks up his sleeve, surely now is the time he has saved them for.
If there is any moment for him to shape his side into their very best, this is it.
Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid have won the last three Champions League titles, underscoring we are in a golden age for these Big Three. One, Barca, is already out. Atletico are a wonderful team coached by one of the world’s best in Diego Simeone, and Manchester City on their day are a force to be reckoned with – but what’s really the path of least resistance here? Bayern or Real, making it a run of four straight European Cups for the world-leading trio.
Though they have not always looked it, Bayern’s results speak to a team that are on the brink of winning the Champions League. They lead another side, Borussia Dortmund, who have often looked one of the best in the world this season, by seven points in the Bundesliga.
They have dispatched Juventus, finalists a year ago and deservedly so, in a hard-fought quarter-final. They have advanced past a very, very difficult Benfica team.
For all the sense they haven’t quite been at their Bayern-y best all season, they have passed every test.
They love to say “we’re Bayern” whenever questions come up about their form or impending challenges, somewhat obnoxiously implying the resolution to those questions is preordained and self-evident. But, most of the time, that kind of actually is how it works with this club, isn’t it?
They are, in a way, the sleeping giants most of the world seems to be sleeping on.