A decade of Thomas Müller: Modern football’s greatest antithesis

What makes a good footballer? Is it his ability to dribble, ruthlessness in front of goal, eye for tactical detail, athleticism, a combination of all? Thomas Muller isn’t the answer to any of those questions, yet he will feature in every conversation about this decade’s greats.
Thomas Muller
Art by Anish Hirlekar

Mathematics explains football. It lends us a perspective beyond the obvious, shows us a pathway into the minds of the game’s deepest thinkers and philosophers, and gives an avenue for analysts to quantize, engineer and optimise every little sinew. Mathematics reduces football, too. It turns a sport that has broken and built governments into a gory dance of arithmetic possibilities, labels players with numbers, and manufactures a weighing scale to judge their differing, detached skills on. Most importantly, it fails to count for emotion, the universal thread which binds any sport, its purveyors, and consumers, together.

We like watching big matches and tournaments because there is much at stake, and the resulting heightened emotional graph engulfs the fans and athletes in one hot embrace. Champion sportsmen are often judged by their performances in these high-value battles, and it’s there that any sport goes beyond mere physical and technical competence. It takes a lot more than ripped muscles and purity of technique for an Usain Bolt to get 9 gold medals in the 9 Olympic events he’s ever participated in.

The football World Cup is one such tournament. It has made heroes out of the seemingly ordinary, and ever so often, it has reinforced greatness. In this year’s edition, defending champions Germany were a minute and a half away from sinking deep into relegation zone in only their second group match. As the game drew to a close, they were gifted a free-kick just outside the left edge of the Swedish penalty-box. It would be the last kick of the ball, and a proud nation’s last throw of the dice to momentarily save themselves shame at a tournament they have always done well in. Toni Kroos, the most German of Germans, stood over the ball. His blue eyes were transfixed on the goal, and much before he began his run-up, an air of inevitability around what was to follow swept around the Fisht Stadium in Sochi. Kroos soaked the pressure up, like he always does, and took emotion out of what was a pivotal moment.

Toni Kroos, the mechanically consistent midfielder, is a shining beacon of twenty-first century German football, where they have married the two things they’re modern pioneers of: engineering and football. It was a movement the DFB put all its weight behind at the turn of the millennium, after a disastrous show at the European Championships in Netherlands. Over the next two decades, German football infrastructure underwent a complete overhaul in an effort to create a conveyor belt of the technically gifted, physically robust, and mentally inventive.

In a system designed to increase the gap between the proficient, like Kroos, and the unsophisticated, Thomas Müller has been ubiquitous for club and country for an entire decade.

We call dialectic the higher movement of reason in which utterly separate terms pass over into each other spontaneously. Dialectic has often been regarded as an art, as though it rested on a subjective talent and did not belong to the objectivity of the Notion.”

A couple of hundred years before Müller carved his unique niche as a footballer, Georg Freidrich Hegel wrote The Science of Logic, a seminal work in the thought process behind knowledge, contradictions and progress through both.

Müller made his debut under Louis van Gaal, a staunch Cruyffian, but with a slightly deeper inclination for the stability of shape than the imbalance of fluidity. The Dutch manager rose to prominence when he guided a young Ajax Amsterdam to the Champions League crown in 1995. That team, from centre-forward to goalkeeper, was moulded out of Cruyff’s principle of versatility, which leaned on a high level of technical competence and innate comfort on the ball.

Van Gaal’s coaching philosophies were reinforced by their success. In The Science of Logic, Hegel spoke about the three kinds or states of contradiction. The first, called Being, is a stage where opposed ideas share no coherence. Müller’s abilities with the ball at his feet should’ve never caught van Gaal’s attention to begin with, yet, in the 2010 Champions League final, Thomas Müller, just 20 years of age, played all ninety minutes.

At that summer’s World Cup, right after he had made his first big mark on global consciousness with a brace against England, Müller was in the mixed-zone for television interviews. The hour right after an emotionally exhausting match can be intense and raw, and you’d forgive a 20-year-old a cathartic show of pride. Such is the age, and besides, one doesn’t score two goals in a Round of 16 match against England everyday.

“Can I say hi to someone? I just want to send greetings to my two grandmas and grandpa. It’s long overdue.”

Everything about Müller is un-modern-footballer-like, starting from his name and down to his hairstyle. Uli Hesse mentions in Eight by Eight how Thomas Müller is the most statistically common name in Germany, and is often used to describe the ultimate average guy.

And much like an average guy, Müller, at least for the first half of his career, was subject to endless doubts about his endurance in the hostile elite echelons of football. Pep Guardiola’s appointment as manager was supposedly the harbinger of his death-knell at his boyhood club.

Müller has lost more balls than any other Bayern player over the past two and a half years. He doesn’t dribble particularly well and he’s never been the fastest guy. His headers are unexceptional and he could use some work on his shooting. He loves to press but often does so with his head turned towards his own team-mates. And yet this is a prodigiously talented footballer.” – Martí Perarnau, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution

The second state of Hegelian contradiction is called Essence, where opposed ideas imply and define each other. Thomas Müller found a place in 151 out of the 161 games Guardiola managed Bayern for, and even found his best scoring form, in addition to his day job of warping defenders’ minds with off-the-ball movement. There was a World Cup neatly sandwiched between those three whirlwind seasons, where he covered more distance than anyone else, yet found time to score four goals, and of course, came back with gold. That year, he also finished fifth in the Ballon d’Or awards, our sport’s grand coronation of individualistic skill and vanity.

If football was merely an e-sport, simulated by some piece of code written by sharp computer scientists sitting in a glass room, Thomas Müller wouldn’t have existed, because mathematics and structured automation leaves no space for the enigmatic.

Football Manager, formerly Championship Manager, is one of the most popular strategy games in football, where entire worlds are simulated for you to manage and coach in. In FM18, their latest version, when you attempt to find a specific role for a wide forward, you are given choices such as Inside Forward and Winger. One of those options is Raumdeuter, German for “interpreter of space”, and a term Thomas Müller contributed to football pop-culture.

Hegel’s third state of contradiction is called Concept, where opposing ideas overlap and a higher, more evolved form of understanding presents itself, by both canceling and preserving the two opposition ideas.

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.