Thomas Müller: the first and possibly last Raumdeuter

Thomas Müller: the first and possibly last Raumdeuter

FALSE NINE, REGISTA, LIBERO; these are all terms that will undoubtedly be familiar to the typical football enthusiast. As indeed will the players associated with them, the likes of Lionel Messi, Andrea Pirlo and Franz Beckenbauer, often considered to be the closest and most successful representations of the roles they occupy, and the tactical implications they bring as a result. But in recent years, one player has brought about a new phenomenon, almost a creation born from his own peculiar individualism. That player is Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller, and the role is that of the Raumdeuter, which can be roughly translated as ‘interpreter of space’.

Unlike the regista, for example – a development which began its progression through the mind of Italian coach Vittorio Pozzo 1930s and became more prevalent as football itself advanced tactically – the raumdeuter came about simply through Müller’s response to a question. Asked what it is that makes him special, he answered: Ich bin ein Raumdeuter.”

Such was the simplistic accuracy of his self-labelling, it became almost a nickname, though in reality it was more of a description of exactly what he provides. It has since grown in popularity – Football Manager players will be familiar with the term – although it has not yet become a part of football culture in the same way that the false 9, for instance, has.

That is because so few players can be naturally assigned to the role of ramdeuter – it is a role intrinsically based on a player’s strengths as opposed to being an aspect of a tactical system. Essentially, it requires a player to roam from a wide starting position, find space and operate as something of a poacher, or as Müller himself says: “It’s all about the timing between the person who plays the pass and the person making a run into the right zone.”

Space is as crucial to Müller’s game as Messi’s left foot is to his. Having the ability to read the game, occupy the right areas on the pitch, and illusively avoid the attention of defenders is a talent that few players possess. It is also underrated, often put down to fortune or instinct, and while the latter plays a part, the influence of thought cannot be completely disregarded.

Müller is a player most wouldn’t consider exceptionally technically gifted. He is not an outstanding dribbler or passer. He can often appear awkward, unrefined, at times almost accidental. But that defines the ramdeuter; a manipulator of space, a reader of the game, and in Müller’s case, a player whose unorthodox idiosyncrasies represent a role almost incomparable to any of football’s numerous others.

Pep Guardiola arrived in Bavaria in 2013 having coached and nurtured technical greats such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. His reputation was that of Total Football and nothing else, the Juego de Posición football which had defined his time at Barcelona was expected to be introduced at Bayern, which brought with it the assumption that only the technically proficient enough would survive. That left doubt over Müller, a player almost the antithesis of what would be considered the archetypal Guardiola attacker.

Indeed, the Catalan coach himself had doubts as to where a player, so far away from his own La Masia educated view of football, would fit in. As Martí Perarnau puts it in his book Pep Guardiola: The Evolution: “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.”

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That is what makes Müller so unique, in a way mysterious. His talent is almost hidden behind a perception of what generally constitutes a gifted footballer, a nonconformist in the most unconventional of ways. Not that he was concerned when news of Guardiola’s arrival was confirmed. “When I heard that Pep Guardiola would come in, I didn’t think about my future, I was just excited and curious,” he has since said.

Müller’s self-confidence was well placed. He had been a regular at Bayern since rising through Hermann Gerland’s youth system and breaking into the first team under Louis van Gaal. He had already top scored at a World Cup, featured prominently in Jupp Heynckes’ treble-winning team, and had already demonstrated on numerous occasions his uncanny ability to find space. But Guardiola was also curious.

Müller had, in a sense, epitomised the blood and thunder, high-intensity profile of the Bundesliga prior to his arrival, his boundless energy symbolic of the Heynckes’ team that proved so successful. Of course, Guardiola knew that would have to be toned down. His Bayern Munich would be more focused on possession, considered build-up and positional play, and it was a case of merging the Catalan originated philosophy with Müller’s almost old school, Germanic traits. Experimentation would be needed, but it was under Guardiola that the true ramdeuter would be created.

The date was 8 November 2014, and Bayern, having made an imperious start to the Bundesliga campaign in Guardiola’s second season, travelled to Frankfurt. The team lined up in a way similar to that of the attacking set-up in Guardiola’s third season, and it was this that allowed Müller to do such terminal damage. Müller started on the left of a narrow attacking trio, alongside Franck Ribéry and Robert Lewandowski, given scope to make use of his inexorably elusive movement.

His first goal came after 22 minutes. Left-back Juan Bernat played a one-two with Lewandowksi before driving to the byline and pulling back for Müller, who had taken up a position on the six-yard box, somehow unmarked. His first effort was blocked on the line from close range, but he eventually managed to bundle the ball in with his knee in what was a strangely typical Thomas Müller goal. Nothing glamorous, not particularly aesthetic or skillfully produced, but uber-efficient.

Half-time arrived with Bayern 1-0 up and comfortable, but more was to come. With over an hour gone, Ribéry was played in behind the hosts’ defence by Mario Götze, and, looking up for options, saw Lewandowski and Müller. Lewandowski, more central, was closely marked, but Müller, in an inside left position, had found himself free of any attention. He was picked out and slotted home to double his and Bayern’s scoring. And three minutes later, he had completed his hat-trick, this time running from deep to latch onto a Götze through ball and slide past the keeper.

This was a performance that perhaps best encapsulated Müller’s invention of something entirely different. All of the goals came from different situations, from different positions; they were opportunistic, space was certainly interpreted. Despite this excellent display, though, it wasn’t until Guardiola’s third and final season that the raumdeuter role truly became a vital and indispensable part of Bayern’s system. And when it did, Müller would find the best form of his career.

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Müller’s biggest strength is his optimism and opportunism. He has an eye for goal. And he is still young. He will only get better.” Guardiola was speaking just weeks into his final season with Die Roten, having been questioned on the season ahead for his German forward. His prediction would prove correct in the fairly immediate future, although getting the maximum out of Müller had not proved entirely without difficulty during his first two years at the club.

By the time Guardiola had left, Müller had played 151 of his 161 games in charge, almost ever-present. Much of them, though, had been, in a way, used in an attempt to finally discover in which way to best utilise him. Part of Football Manager’s description of the raumdeuter role, reads: “There can be quiet periods during which the Raumdeuter may neglect his defensive duties, therefore adequate cover and a strong team shape are key in order to fully utilise his attacking prowess in the final third.” For Guardiola, there was a fine balance between sacrificing the team, and making use of a player with such a unique gift.

In both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, Müller scored 13 Bundesliga goals. Commendable totals certainly, but Guardiola wanted more. The former Barcelona coach had attempted to use Müller as a false 9, a traditional winger, a centre forward, but when consigned to an overly detailed tactical plan, particularly with the addition of positional play to consider, Müller often struggled to fully integrate himself with the side. As he has said himself in the past: “I’m not so much involved in the buildup and don’t have many touches of the ball.”

Guardiola strived to find a solution that would bring the best of his plethora of gifted attacking players, in particular Müller, and in his third season, he discovered it. He created what Martí Perarnau describes as an attacking ‘ecosystem’, in an attacking front four with two wide wingers. This meant that Müller was effectively something of a shadow striker to Lewandowski, although in actual fact, the new system simplified his game and allowed him the space to move freely while the build up play was largely taken care of by others. It was a raumdeuter in its purest form, a role requiring little else other than anticipation, intelligence and the ability to finish, all of which Müller has in abundance.

Müller found the net 20 times in the Bundesliga – the first time he had reached that particular landmark in his career – as Bayern secured yet another title. He added eight goals in the Champions League and four in the cup, to take his total to a superb 32 in all competitions. This was far from coincidental. Guardiola had created an ecosystem, and the most important of organisms had thrived, feeding off the supplies provided by those around him.

An increase in influence on the pitch led to an increase in influence off it for Müller. He had become something of a leader – alongside Philipp Lahm – his volcanic, eccentric mannerisms complimenting his evidently growing confidence in Bayern’s system. All of it had come through what might appear at first an almost negligible change, but Müller’s role was always one of complex simplicity. It had worked through perseverance on Guardiola’s part, and the willingness to be patient on Müller’s. The raumdeuter was at its irrepressible best.

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The false 9 can be traced back as far as the 1930s, when Argentine forward Adolfo Pedernera led the line for River Plate and regularly dropped deeper to avoid the attention of the defenders that he felt had grown increasingly irritating. That initiation was more consequential, though, and in its modern form, it is perhaps first noticeable in the Hungarian Nándor Hidegkuti, part of the great 1950s Hungary side, the Magical Magyars. Since then, the likes of Alfredo Di Stéfano, Michael Laudrup and Francesco Totti have all been used in the role, but it had become absent from the global game until 2009, when Guardiola spotted a potential use for it.

The player, of course, was Messi. The game – now almost infamous – was Real Madrid away. Guardiola had instructed Messi, who normally played on the right, to occupy a position almost between a number 10 and a number 9, deeper than a conventional forward, which would occupy the space in front of the centre-backs. Madrid’s centre-backs, Christoph Metzelder and Fabio Cannavaro, were bewildered, not knowing whether to press or stand off, stuck with a dilemma with apparently no solution. Its effect was revolutionary, Guardiola was lauded, and the false 9 emerged into the mainstream.

With Müller and Bayern’s ecosystem, Guardiola had created something similar. It is less visible, more of an abstract concept than that of the false 9, but Müller, as the raumdeuter had been made notably more effective. Lewandowski was able to occupy defenders, leaving Müller, already difficult enough for defenders to mark, with even more space to occupy. Evidently, Müller is not at the level of Messi, but Guardiola’s tactical tweak was comparable.

The raumdeuter is unlikely to become a role as often used as the false 9, simply because it is less definable; it could be used in a number of areas of the pitch, and in different ways. Still, it remains an interesting footballing development, which has found its way to prevalence through the feet of one of modern football’s most individualistic players.

“I don’t enjoy being classed as a striker,” Müller says. “I don’t see myself as one. I like to be active in space in behind the opposition’s midfield. That’s where I can hurt the opponent most of all. I’m a mix between a striker and a midfielder.”

Since Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival at Bayern to replace Guardiola last summer, there has been debate as to where Müller should be used in his system, and whether he has indeed been utilised correctly. The reason is that Müller has scored just two Bundesliga goals in 22 games, a surprisingly low total when considering his prolific campaign just a season earlier. It could be that he has been tasked more with creating space for Lewandowski this season, as opposed to himself, Ancelotti preferring a more orthodox attacking approach. In part, as Müller has admitted, it has been perhaps down to a dip in form. Despite a lack of goals, though, his performances have remained largely consistent, and he still contributes regularly in Bayern’s attacking moves.

Ancelotti, like Guardiola, now faces the task of trying to best play to his strengths, without surrendering the structure of the team. The Italian coach has, however, still been impressed by Müller. “You don’t associate that kind of intelligence and tactical awareness with attacking players, certainly not at his level, which is simply exceptional,” he told ESPN in January. “You do find it sometimes in defenders or midfielders. But for a forward, it’s hugely rare.”

It would be a surprise not to see Müller increase his goal tally during the Italian’s reign, although goalscoring is not all he offers. Indeed, if this is to be an underwhelming campaign in terms of goals, it shouldn’t diminish in any way his progress in recent years. This, after all, is a player who has almost created his own position, one who has reached the top of world football as an attacker in a way that very few, if any, have done before. Müller is the first Raumdeuter, and, as unique as he is, maybe the last.

By Callum Rice-Coates  @callumrc96

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