If you want to escape the sunset, head to Bayern Munich. With eight consecutive Bundesliga titles under their belt, the club is certain of success. Although he has recruited well over the years, he has also had to adapt, changing his tactics on the field and his manner of transfers to stay ahead of the chasers. They are still at the top of the Bundesliga and chasing a ninth league title while having had six different managers, from perfectionist Pep Guardiola to owner heavyweight Carlo Ancelotti to a quiet revival under Hansi Flick in 2021.
But there were constants and some continuity along the way. While some staff members come and go – like club legends Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, or superstars like Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, who have contributed immensely to Bayern’s domestic dominance – there is a small group of players who continue to lead the club and shape its culture and players’ expectations.
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Thomas Muller is one of those players with 571 appearances for the club he joined in 2000. (His 572nd league game against RB Leipzig, Bayern’s latest heir apparent, takes place this Saturday). Despite nine Bundesliga titles, six DFB-Pokkal titles, two Champions Leagues and the World Cup, Muller’s will to win is unbroken.
I think if your body is healthy, you’re strong and you have no health problems, the motivation to win is the same every time, Mueller said, referring to Zoom from his native Germany. Because for me it’s not important to win the title – of course I want to win the title. But I want to be the best. I want to be the best in my team and I want to be the best in the Bundesliga with my team.
Winning is my goal. This is what gives you an idea of what you are looking for, not a metal tag.
Muller, 31, thinks only briefly about life after football – mostly when relaxing in his garden – and believes he will be at the top of his game for about five more years. As a man who has spent his entire career at one club, he says it would be no shame and no problem if Bayern one day decided to transfer him, but for now his form at Bayern is proof to him that he can always play at such a level.
Last season, under Nico Kovacs, it seemed Mueller’s time was up. He had fallen out of favour, both at the club and domestically, and with his contract expiring at the end of the 2019-20 season, he was considering his options. Doubts about his future coincided with a poor season for Bayern – two defeats in the first 10 league games by Bavarian standards – but the 2. November 2019, Kovacs is sacked after a 5-1 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt.
Flick eliminated a Bavarian four-pointer, and Mueller came back. From then on, the team remained unbeaten for 32 games, and Muller set a new record with 21 Bundesliga assists (and eight goals), while the team won six trophies (Bundesliga, Champions League, DFB-Pokal, German Supercup, UEFA Supercup and FIFA Club World Cup). They were only the second team to match Guardiola’s Barcelona team in the 2008-09 season.
At 31, Muller is having one of his best seasons at Bayern Munich. CHRISTOPHER STAHE/AFP via Getty Images
This season, it’s more of the same. With the exception of the surprising defeat in the second round of the DFB Cup against Holstein Kiel, Bayern were once again the favourites to win the Bundesliga and the Champions League. The team is kept in the same vein as Guardiola’s Dream Team, and in conversation with Müller, one of the key elements of their success over the past decade has been their ability to avoid complacency or lapsing into a state of blissful contentment.
We had the problem [during our eight titles] at times when Bayern might not have been super strong, but other teams didn’t take their chances, Muller said. We had moments of weakness or weeks of weakness, but they didn’t take advantage of it. Maybe we’ll get lucky… I don’t know how to explain it. …. Or maybe we were just better, I don’t know.
Despite jokes about Lewangoal, a reference to Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski, or Alfonso Davies, the club’s version of Road Runner (with Muller’s imitation of Meep! Meep!), Muller takes his job seriously. According to him, one year with them is the same as three years of stress at another Bundesliga club, but it won’t change anything.
He also pokes fun at the term Raumdeuter, which was specifically created to explain Müller’s unique and difficult to define positioning around a goal. At his heart, he alternates between playing as a false nine in midfield, an attacking midfielder, or on the right side in attack. According to him, all myths about his abilities or spatial understanding are exaggerated.
I think people are very good at explaining to themselves or the rest of the football world [how] a player who may not have particular physical strength, skill or dribbling ability is so effective,? Mueller said. You create something that is generally considered to be particularly meaningful; maybe that’s one of my strengths – doing it over and over again.
Jan Aage Fjortoft assesses how Bayern Munich will perform without the injured Robert Lewandowski.
Others may see his talent differently; Muller has been declared redundant by German manager Joachim Low, but the Bayern star’s form is so convincing that he should not be forgotten. (Wednesday’s surprising defeat in North Macedonia suggests that the spark is not going to fly).
His partnership with Lewandowski is also incredibly beneficial for FC Bayern. This season, the two men have combined for 55 goals and 25 assists in all competitions.
We know that when we play together, we are stronger. He’s very good because I know what he wants to do, so I know how to make it work for him. He knows that if I look up, I’m trying to find him. I always try to find the most direct path to the goal, and it’s usually the striker who is looking for that. He knows I don’t play for the circus, I play for the points.
All players can read the game on some level – processing and interpreting what’s going on around them to make better decisions about whether to play the ball – but Mueller takes it a step further. For the Bayern star, the game looks simple. In his mind, it’s all about space and, of course, zombies.
Lewandowski (left) and Muller have combined for 55 goals and 25 assists in all competitions this season. Lars Baron/Getty Images
That’s Mueller in an overhand position. There are a lot of flagging situations in football. He talks about his options on the left wing: passing the ball over, cutting back, a diagonal pass to a defensive midfielder or left back, or throwing the ball upfield.
Every defender on the opposing team looks at the ball like a zombie….. (At this point Muller is doing his own weird zombie impersonation.) You need to understand with your teammates that in this situation, they need to know [if] you’re going to run, and you need to know that they know [if] the pass is an option. Sometimes it’s easier than it looks, but of course you need the right time, the right technical time.
One of the most important things for a good cross is that you don’t try to put it on someone else’s head, it goes over it. Place the ball in space, as the attacker sometimes has more time than you think But if you put the ball in the goal instead of in space, it is easier for the defender and there is no chance of a goal.
According to Müller, this is the gospel of the creation of chance. But he’s also doing his bit by scoring 10 goals in the Bundesliga this season.
RB Leipzig of Julian Nagelsmann is the closest this season, last season it was Borussia Dortmund. But Bayern have managed to outdo them, and everyone else, over the past nine seasons.
Sometimes, Muller says, other teams haven’t seized their chance to dethrone Bayern. He looks back at the 2015/16 season, when Thomas Tuchel’s BVB kept Bayern within reach for most of the season, before distancing themselves and finishing ten points behind.
On other occasions the club has recovered after a change of manager. He has fond memories of Pep Guardiola’s early days at Bayern. Pep gives us our asses every training session, he said. Guardiola came on after winning the Champions League in 2013, which at the time felt like a summit of Everest. But the introduction of Guardiola prevented any complacency.
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Jupp Heynckes resigned and Pep tried everything to succeed…. Muller says he wants to show the world that he can do it in the new league too. After Pep, we had a few seasons and last season when other teams had a chance….. Maybe.
Muller is well aware of his role as mentor to the young Bavarians. In particular, he has taken 18-year-old Jamal Musiala under his wing. Thomas helps me a lot. I am very grateful to learn from him every practice and every game and that he always has a listening ear for me, Musiala said in March.
Young Bayern players like Musiala and Davies also have a positive influence on Muller. They keep me sharp, and they keep my body in shape, Mueller said. But then comes the qualification of expectations.
But on the contrary… I keep them on their toes and I want them to know that if they play for Bayern, their age doesn’t matter: You have to win.
And therein lies the reason why this Bayern team has won eight consecutive Bundesliga titles and is about to win one more. It’s an obsession with success and a perception of pressure, whether it’s a ten-year title, a Champions League final or a friendly pre-season.
Take the game against Leipzig this weekend. Bayern are four points behind their rivals in second place. With a win, the lead increases to seven points, with a loss it drops to one. But will it happen to Mueller? Don’t be a fool.
You can’t learn that [the winner’s mentality] in Bayern, you have to build it up with experience and confidence, says Müller. We always thought before the game that we were the better team on the field….. After the game, it might be the other way around! But feeling like a loser? I don’t remember.
I always try to make sure we can beat any team we face. Maybe it’s very subjective sometimes. And maybe it’s a trick, my trick, to play so powerfully. Because what’s your advantage when you think about losing? I don’t know.