Turning up for duty ahead of his 84th and 85th caps for Germany last month, Thomas Muller was full of typical good cheer. He made jokes, one of them at his own expense. “Maybe it’s just as well we have this international break now,” he grinned. “It gives the Bundesliga a chance to recover from the shock of seeing me score a goal.”
It was a nice line in self-deprecation, and it shouted a concern that tends to be only whispered around Bayern Munich, the club at which Muller grew up and remains an emblem for. His league goalscoring drought – he had gone 10 matches without one before breaking the run in late March – seemed abnormal for this firefly of an attacker.
The fact that Muller has been so under par in front of goal partly explains why Bayern are so anxious to have their leading marksman, Robert Lewandowski fit enough to play a part in Tuesday’s Uefa Champions League quarter-final at Real Madrid, where they have a 2-1 deficit to make up.
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Whether Muller can find a space in the line-up if Lewandowski, who missed the first leg, starts is an issue. Where once the term “ghostly” was used as a compliment for his football, his uncanny ability to appear in the right places, apparently invisible to markers, it now gets applied sceptically. Muller has been a phantom lately because he has not been imposing himself on defenders, or on match outcomes. And it has been a while since Muller, 27, has known his value to his team so questioned.
“Crisis” would be too strong a term, but the lower ratio of his goals in a generally free-scoring team is an indication that the clever Muller runs, the predatory instincts are not quite functioning as they can. Muller scored 32 times for Bayern across competitions last season. In this campaign he has eight so far.
If Muller would never claim to be the accomplished target man that Lewandowski is, he also finds his avenues into the first XI in other roles challenged. Muller can be terrific in wide positions, but not in the specialist way Arjen Robben, a rejuvenated Franck Ribery or indeed Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman are. As for making the play from just behind a centre-forward, Thiago Alcantara is commanding that job in Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern.
In a squad as rich with quality as Bayern’s, these challenges come with territory, as one of Muller’s close contemporaries would testify. Once upon a time, Toni Kroos, also 27, and, like Muller, a figurehead of the 2014 World Cup-winning German national team, was a Bayern colleague of Muller, Alcantara, Robben and Ribery. He sometimes felt frustrated, faced with such competition for places in attacking midfield.
Kroos moved to Real Madrid in the summer of 2014, and was designated a deeper role there. He has become indispensable. Kroos’s 15 assists for Madrid this season make him as good a provider of chances as any in Spanish football. Kroos’s precise delivery, his crosses and corners are a principal reason for Madrid’s effectiveness with set pieces.
Kroos recently told German media he feels, after two and half seasons in Spain, more Madridista than he ever felt a Bayern man, even if he spent longer – six seasons in the first team, two in the youth teams – in Bavaria. It would be hard to ever imagine Muller saying the same. The gregarious Muller is truly the local hero; the cooler Kroos, born in the former East Germany, gravitated south to Bayern, and spent two years loaned out by them to Bayer Leverkusen.
Otherwise, the pair advanced in step with one another. Muller and Kroos made their full Germany debuts the same day. They won Bundesliga titles together, and shared for Bayern the heartbreak of defeat via penalty shoot-out in the 2012 Champions League final.
Kroos missed Bayern’s victory in the final a year later with injury, but caught up with Muller’s total of winning finals last May. Naturally, it was Kroos who provided the floated pass that led to Madrid’s opening goal in an eventual shoot-out victory over Atletico Madrid in Milan.
Kroos, the king of the crossers, now intends to make his European champions the first club for 18 years to defend the title, and leave his former club in his slipstream.
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