The official account of the Bundesliga calls him ‘the most underappreciated player in world football’, while Carlo Ancelotti, when in charge at Bayern, was one of the many coaches who praised his positioning and tactical intelligence. There’s countless articles with team-mates praising him, while his record speaks for itself.
No, Thomas Muller isn’t underappreciated or indeed underrated, from the sense that a footballer that has so many articles written about him along these very lines simply can’t be, by definition. There are countless Muller fans out there and his legacy as one of Bayern and Germany’s greatest-ever players has long been solidified.
To understand quite how amazing an achievement Muller’s season has been, we need to add the context of how it began. By August 2019 he was out of favour at Bayern, with Niko Kovac reducing his role to one of impact substitute. In fact he started just two matches from the beginning of September until the end of November, sometimes given scant minutes from the bench or, sometimes, nothing at all. In the previous March Joachim Low had decided that he was surplus to requirements for Germany as well, effectively ruling him out of being selected while Low was coach.
In September, he turned 30 in what is increasingly a young man’s game. Transfer rumours amplified. Manchester United, maybe, or elsewhere. He was a player in need of a home.
Then, in November, Kovac was relieved of his duties, with Bayern performing well below expectations despite the talent available. It was then that the unlikely second coming of Muller began. But this isn’t just the tale of a player proving his doubters wrong and fighting his way back into the side. His underlying numbers are so much better than that.
Muller has always been a regular provider, breaking double figures for assists in each of the last four seasons. But in 19/20 only Kevin De Bruyne has more assists than him, having played 598 minutes less. This is reflected in his rate of 0.92 assists P90, miles in front of anyone in Europe’s top five leagues. His non-penalty goal contributions P90 of 1.27 put him in fourth behind Kylian Mbappe, Jadon Sancho and Lionel Messi.
Robert Lewandowski owes him an immense gratitude. The pair have the type of relationship that has been honed over years of playing and practicing with one another. At least three of Muller’s assists for the Pole come in exactly the same way; Muller collecting right-centre of the area and chipping over to the back post, where Lewandowski has already peeled off into space. Muller provides the type of passes that he himself would like to receive.
THOMAS MULLER: 2016-2020
Goal Contribution Per Min
And these assist numbers are no fluke; his Expected Assists (xA) P90 total of 0.70 is the highest in Europe. He is loading the bullets for a Bayern team that was well-positioned as Champions League favourites prior to the coronavirus crisis.
From a relative outcast to one of the leading providers in Europe in the space of six months, Muller’s dedication to the betterment of himself almost makes Kovac’s tactical opinion of him all the more baffling.
Kovac preferred Serge Gnabry - who has been an unbridled star - Philippe Coutinho and the inconsistent and perennially injured Kingsley Coman as his three attacking midfielders in a 4-2-3-1, while Muller was frozen out. Since Muller’s proper reintroduction to the team, Bayern have won 14 of their last 15 matches, not only returning to the top of the Bundesliga, but opening up a four-point gap at the top. Since mid-December, Muller’s FC Rating has went from 83 to 97 - a clear marker of a drastic change in fortunes.
It’s clear that Bayern weren’t operating with a happy dressing room under Kovac. Muller said: “Emotionally, it was very tense back then. I wasn't necessarily thinking that I would be extending my contract in the spring.
"With the change of coach [to Hansi Flick] and different playing style, everything has developed positively. Not only have I been playing more, but I've also been able to put my stamp on our games again."
Now, he’s extended until 2023, as has Flick, who trusts a legitimate Bayern legend to continue to lead the team.
He added: “For me, however, the following applies: this story should not be finished yet and in the end, titles won counts towards a legend’s status,”
Muller's story in Bavaria is far from finished.